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24 September 2021

Why Ed Davey’s biggest early victory had nothing to do with Chesham and Amersham

The Lib Dems’ by-election win improved the mood, but the biggest boost to their prospects came from elsewhere.

By Stephen Bush

The Liberal Democrats’ political task between now and the next general election is simple: to convince enough “pragmatic liberals” (those voters who are broadly aligned with the party’s values, but fear supporting it is a wasted vote) in their target seats and anti-Conservative voters that they can win, while peeling off enough of what they call “soft Conservatives” (that is, people who generally vote Tory but are open to voting for other parties, or have perhaps voted Liberal Democrat in so-called “second-order” elections such as local council or European contests) to take Tory seats. 

By any definition, Ed Davey has had an excellent first year as Liberal Democrat leader. While the local and devolved elections, which saw incumbent governments rewarded in England, Scotland and Wales, were not as good as the party had been hoping for back in January 2020, its patchy gains in England demonstrated it is on to something in apparently safe Conservative seats in the south that feature a large number of graduates. The Chesham and Amersham by-election victory in June has been taken as further proof both inside and outside the party that it can make gains against the Tories and has added to the positive mood around Davey’s leadership. Both those achievements are also important signals to Britain’s “pragmatic liberals” that the Liberal Democrats aren’t a wasted vote. 

The party’s conference went well: it enjoyed news coverage across the weekend and did a good job of minimising any negative headlines from the conference defeat inflicted on the leadership by pro-housing activists (an implicit rebuke of some of the tactics deployed in Chesham and Amersham). And Davey’s campaigning for British carers is both a good illustration of the value of having minor parties that campaign on such issues and shows a different side of their leader to the press. These are important messages for both expanding the total number of people in the “pragmatic liberal” group and winning over “soft Conservatives”. 

But the best news that the party has had isn’t about anything it did or said at its conference, or any of the choices made by the leadership. It’s an important on-the-ground success: retaining candidates in seats it didn’t win but where it enjoyed a decent showing at the last election. The biggest name is Phillip Lee, the former Conservative minister turned Liberal Democrat defector, who is again standing in Wokingham, but it’s an equally big boost for the party that Monica Harding is standing again in Dominic Raab’s Esher and Walton seat.

Why? Because the other task the Liberal Democrats have is building up a personal vote around their incumbents – this is much, much more important for them than the other parties. Taken together, it means that the Liberal Democrats end Davey’s first full year in office with grounds for reasonable optimism.

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