Daisy Cooper, the new MP for St Albans and a rising star within the Liberal Democrats, has backed Ed Davey for party leader, surprising many in the party’s base.
What does it mean for the leadership contest? On the most basic level, as Team Davey will be keen to point out, it puts Davey ahead of Layla Moran in terms of MP nominations: 5-3 to him, with no more MPs to declare. At the start of the race, many of the party’s MPs weren’t planning on expressing a preference between the two candidates. Now, as a genuine debate emerges over strategy and how the party must pitch itself going forward, every MP has publicly declared a preference, except Alastair Carmichael, who, as chief whip, remains neutral.
But Cooper’s endorsement has significance well beyond the arithmetic. The St Albans MP is, firstly, considered one of the party’s greatest talents and a potential future party leader; she considered standing in this cycle, before ruling herself out over the “timing” (she is a very new MP in a marginal seat during a public health crisis and an economic catastrophe, and wants to focus on her constituency). She also hasn’t ruled out a future leadership bid. As such, her endorsement carries more implicit weight and attracts more attention.
It is, also, a genuine surprise to those who follow Liberal Democrat politics. Cooper is well-known for her strident opposition to many of the party’s actions in coalition. This endorsement of Davey, who was energy secretary in the coalition years, flies in the face of what many party members thought they knew about her.
Their assessment isn’t necessarily wrong: on the political spectrum of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party, Cooper is on the left flank and closer to Moran than Davey. At least one of the MPs who would have endorsed Cooper for leader is backing Moran; several of the MPs hoping that she will run for deputy leader are Moran supporters. What Cooper argues in our interview, however, is that the difference between any of them in the parliamentary party isn’t that great. “All of our MPs are pretty much centre left,” she says. “I don’t think the divisions are as big as some people might make out.” She also, notably, says her firm opposition to the party’s record in coalition may have been “misunderstood” as a desire to pretend the coalition didn’t happen; this isn’t her position, she says, arguing the party has to “own it”, good and bad.
But it remains true that Cooper has endorsed the candidate she is slightly further away from politically. Why?
You don’t have to read too carefully between the lines of Cooper’s interview to detect a criticism of Layla Moran’s leadership pitch over recent weeks. She offers a positive case for Davey, yes, but also a robust dismissal of the idea that the party should move left to attract younger voters. “Well, in St Albans, we did win over the votes of young people and we did so by making a strong case for the Liberal Democrats and for liberalism!” she says.
But it’s Cooper’s emphasis on “clarity of message” that is most telling. It is unclear if Moran really intended to suggest that the party would tack left under her leadership (indeed, whether she meant to imply that or not, all the indications are that she would not do that in reality, as a new Twitter thread by the candidate makes clear.) Cooper’s preference of a leader with a “clarity of message” gets to the nub of her implicit criticism of Moran’s campaign: it may have been a fundamental strategic error, or a slip of the tongue, but either way, Cooper casts doubt on Moran’s ability to deliver an effective message.
Many party members will be disappointed by Cooper’s endorsement, will disagree with her implicit critique, and continue to support Moran. But many others, including among the party’s younger and more radical members, will see this decision from a politician they closely align with, and may reevaluate their instinctive choice for leader in the light of Cooper’s choice.
This endorsement, while a genuine coup for Davey, is really a blow to Moran.