The Lib Dem leader is in a twist. In the past few years, Ed Davey’s party has built itself into a by-election-winning machine, capable of toppling Tory majorities as large as 24,000 (Tiverton and Honiton). As I reported last January, this success is partly explained by the retention and enlargement of its 2019 election operation. That infrastructure – as sources were clear at the party’s autumn conference – would be used to fight the general election as if it were a series of by-elections, and as such national policies have been honed into constituency-specific messaging on sewage, the NHS and planning.
Their success as the main challenger in several Tory seats across the rural south has led to an inadvertent non-aggression pact with Labour (the Mid Bedfordshire by-election notwithstanding). This is a party defined by its opposition to an unpopular incumbent government. Davey has made a habit of donning a Barbour coat and travelling to Tory constituencies to smash a wall of blue bricks or prick a blue balloon. The effect is gimmicky, light-hearted and winsome.
The same cannot be said for Davey’s entanglement in the Post Office scandal, in which thousands of sub-post officers were wrongly accused of theft. In recent days, he has been hit with a barrage of criticism for not doing more to help those mistreated when he was postal affairs minister from 2010-12. In response, Davey says he was misled by the Post Office. The Lib Dems’ legacy in coalition with the Conservatives between 2010 and 2015 could tar the party yet again. But insiders argue this is blown out of proportion by a Tory party staring electoral defeat in the face. “The Tories are clearly trying to make political capital out of it,” one senior Lib Dem source said. “You can certainly tell that it’s an election year.”
Another source accuses Tories in the Blue Wall of trying to weaponise the story to stave off Lib Dem advances, pointing to Steve Brine (Winchester), John Redwood (Wokingham) and Bim Afolami (Hitchin and Harpenden). “Lots of Tory MPs with us in second place have been tweeting about this, which they don’t normally do.” On top of that, Lib Dem insiders say the issue isn’t coming up on the doorstep. “A handful of mentions out of a lot, a lot of doors,” as one put it. The party will welcome the fact that on Newsnight yesterday, the chief campaigner for victims, Alan Bates, played down Davey’s responsibility by pointing to the advice he received from officials and acknowledging he was one of many ministers in post during the scandal.
That the Tories will, naturally, exploit any chink in their opponent’s armour does not reduce the damage done. While contempt for the Post Office and sympathy for the victims will dwarf any anger towards Davey, this episode has muddied the Lib Dems’ reputation as an insurgent underdog. However much they long to move on, the party’s time in coalition continues to haunt them.
This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.
[See also: Ed Davey: “Voters are not blaming Brexit”]