Ed Davey set out to introduce himself in his Liberal Democrat conference speech today: but not to the voters.
Of course, the overwhelming majority of British people have no idea who he is. His time to address them will not come at any point in the next four years, but during the short campaign of the 2024 general election.
This speech was aimed at two other groups: Liberal Democrat members, who primarily know him as “that bloke who was quite good at the hustings in the 2019 leadership election and was a cabinet minister in the coalition”, and political journalists, who primarily know him as “that bloke who was a cabinet minister in the coalition”. The centrepiece of that – both in terms of describing his own upbringing and his political strategy for the Liberal Democrats – is the social care crisis and the treatment of carers.
The things the Liberal Democrat leader does in the next four years are important, not so much because of what they mean for the party’s electoral prospects, but because they help define the questions broadcasters and big newspapers will ask Davey in 2024. They also help define which weeks will be Liberal Democrat weeks when the broadcasters try to meet their obligations for giving the minor parties due prominence. Jo Swinson’s 2019 conference speech set a time bomb under her leadership, because the question she defined was, “Are the Liberal Democrats on the verge of using Brexit to reconfigure British politics?” When it became clear that the answer was “no”, her campaign never recovered.
So what are the questions on which Davey is seeking to define himself as relevant? The most significant and well-delivered part of the speech concerned the social care crisis. The Kingston and Surbiton MP, whose father died when he was four and whose mother died when he was a teenager, has direct experience of the challenges faced by carers. He looked after his mother during the last years of her battle against bone cancer, his grandmother in the final years of her life, and as a carer to his son John, who has complex special needs.
That moving section of the speech would, if Davey were the new leader of the Conservative or Labour Party, be what he would hope would appear on today’s six and ten o’clock news. Such coverage is highly unlikely to be given to a Liberal Democrat leader at the best of times, let alone when the United Kingdom’s four governments are battling a pandemic.
Of course, Davey opted to talk about his unusual childhood mainly because it was a formative experience, and about his experiences caring for a child with complex special needs because it is a huge part of his life today. He could no more introduce himself to journalists without discussing these experiences than he could have given his leader’s speech without using the words “Liberal” or “Democrat”.
But there is also a political dimension, because the rising cost of adult social care, and the pressures it places on families and on the British state, particularly local authorities, are going to be an increasingly prominent problem for the Conservative government in coming years. The Tories’ 2019 manifesto made a point of ruling out the traditionally favoured solution of tax rises, and also pledged that no one would lose their house to pay for their care, which essentially ruled out another revenue-raiser too. The government has said it will “seek cross-party consensus” on social care, though this is, as it almost always is, code for “try to avoid making decisions on this politically painful issue”.
Davey has set his party up as the honest broker on social care. But more importantly, he is trying to establish his party as a participant on these issues: to say, if you’re covering social care on BBC Question Time or Politics Live, then you’ve got to have a Liberal Democrat on.
Will it work? Social care is a good area for the Liberal Democrats, because it is so difficult and painful politically for the Conservatives to solve that the issue is all but guaranteed to run for the course of this parliament.
The questions around “Brand Davey” are less clear. The difficulty is that a lot of people at Westminster, both within the Liberal Democrats and the press, don’t really understand the unique task that Liberal Democrat leaders have. The big risk is that Davey’s unusual (for Westminster, that is) backstory and life becomes something that the political class decides “everyone knows” long before anyone normal gets to hear about it: and that he is never given the opportunity to introduce himself to voters as effectively as he did to the political class today.