Ed Davey only gets the attention of the nation’s press once or twice a year. He has to make it count. His Liberal Democrat conference speech today was an opportunity to ignite the campaigning passion for which the party is famous and convey a singular message that will, hopefully, cut through to voters. His jokes landed. Party activists in Bournemouth enjoyed the speech. His big bet to win over voters is healthcare.
Party strategists believe the NHS will attract affluent voters in the “Blue Wall” for whom the cost-of-living crisis is not the top priority. Davey promised a five-year cancer plan that will give a patients a legal right to receive cancer treatment within 65 days. He wants to prioritise new treatments and halve the time it takes to get them to patients. One problem is that making better treatment a legal right does not mean the NHS can deliver it. The two-month target has been government policy for decades; there are other reasons why the government hasn’t achieved it besides a lack of will. Nonetheless, the policy will form a key part of the Lib Dems’ attack on the government. It’s another policy with which they can respond when asked “what will you do instead?” – a question that has presented a larger problem for the party than it should have in recent months.
Davey also sought to prevent Labour stealing pro-European votes. In the bars around the conference centre last night (25 September), there were murmurs that the party was at risk of being outflanked by Labour’s promise to agree a closer trade agreement with the EU. Davey’s chosen riposte is to remind voters that Labour voted for Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal. As for whether the Lib Dems want to re-join the EU, the fudge from party insiders is that the party wants to be at the “heart of Europe”, as Davey has put it. His comments on Brexit were fleeting. They felt designed to reassure members, not galvanise the public. Likewise his comments on electoral reform. These are not priorities for the Lib Dems’ forthcoming campaign.
The economy was equally noticeable for its absence. Davey spoke about the cost-of-living crisis but didn’t offer any explanation for its cause. He said he wants to solve the big challenges facing the country. And yet, electoral reform is placed above economic reform. This is not surprising from a party which, during the coalition years, helped to create the economy we inhabit today.
But the most important takeaway from the Lib Dem conference is that Tory seats are in their sights and the NHS is their weapon of choice. The question is whether it will work. “It falls to us to rescue the NHS,” said Davey. Current polls suggest that is unlikely. But how many seats the party can take from the Tories will partly dictate the size of a potential Labour majority – and perhaps more importantly, whether it gets one at all.
[See also: Lib Dems split by housing targets]