More than seven years have passed since the Liberal Democrats were in government but the party is still living with the consequences. After imposing deep public spending cuts and raising tuition fees in coalition with the Conservatives, the Lib Dems went from 56 seats in parliament to just eight. Even now, after a series of by-election triumphs, the party holds a mere 14.
Ed Davey wants those lost seats back. “The strategy is to get rid of as many Tory MPs as possible,” the Liberal Democrat leader, 56, said in his Westminster office. According to Davey the party is targeting the Tories for two reasons.
First: “If you look at our held seats the party in second place is either Tory – the majority – or SNP. [There’s nowhere with] Labour in second place in our held seats. In our top target seats, they are all against the incumbent Tory MPs bar one, which is Sheffield Hallam, and two others which are SNP. So our target seats and the areas where we think we can make progress are the Blue Wall seats.”
Second: “They’re the government, right? And they’re making a complete mess of our country. They’ve trashed the economy. They’re destroying our health service. And they’ve been utterly incompetent – so not surprisingly I want to target the Tories.”
Davey’s aim as leader has been to turn his party into a campaigning force. Since becoming leader in 2019 he has increased the number of Lib Dem campaign managers from five to 30. Two days before we met Davey had visited candidates in Staffordshire for the local elections in May. Now, he said, “in seats like the Blue Wall, we are ready to take on the Tories big time.”
But what about Labour? Doesn’t the party’s refusal to countenance rejoining the European single market and reinstating free movement provide an opening for the Lib Dems? Davey counters that the UK’s relationship with Europe isn’t at the forefront of voters’ minds. “When I’m on the doorstep, people don’t talk about the House of Lords; they don’t talk about Brexit. What they’re talking about is the health service,” he said. “Voters are not blaming Brexit. What they talk about is the Tories’ incompetent policies.”
Davey says he doesn’t worry about what the other parties do. Instead, he wants “our campaigning party to be listening to the people in the seats that we think we can win. And there is no doubt in my mind, I see it poll after poll, talking to these canvassers at the weekend, that it is the NHS, and it’s the economy, particularly energy bills, food bills [that voters care about].”
In common with Keir Starmer’s Labour, the Lib Dems have become wary of mentioning Brexit. At the 2019 general election, when the party vowed to revoke Article 50 and stop the process of leaving the EU, Davey’s predecessor, Jo Swinson, lost her East Dunbartonshire seat (having earlier boasted that she could become prime minister). Three years on the Europe question has reinserted itself into political debate – partly because of the vacuum left by the main parties and partly because Brexit’s economic damage is becoming more visible. Is Davey reluctant to mention Brexit because he believes this is politically prudent or because he doesn’t think Brexit is damaging the economy?
[See also: Lib Dems are coming for the Blue Wall]
“We will talk about [that],” he said, stressing that the Lib Dems want a closer relationship with the EU. “Let’s deal with the mutual recognition of professional qualifications, for example. [Let’s deal with] a lot of the stuff that was left out of the trade deal, which is why it was so shockingly bad.
“But what I’m saying to you is our main points of conversation with voters will be, as a campaigning party, what is at the top of people’s concerns. We’ve led the debate in the last sort of 16 months. The windfall tax: who was the first party to talk about it? We were – about four months before Labour. Which was the first party to talk about freezing the energy price cap? It was us. Who was the first party to talk about dealing with people who’ve got problems with mortgages? I announced a mortgage protection fund [in November].”
The Lib Dems’ promise of a £300-a-month subsidy for struggling homeowners is a telling play for voters in the Conservatives’ heartlands. Opposition parties don’t publish full plans for government until a general election. Instead, they announce single policies beforehand to signal their priorities to voters and frame the political debate in terms favourable to them. Hence Labour’s promise to scrap non-domiciled tax status – meant to put Rishi Sunak in a difficult position because his wife benefited from the status until recently. Hence also Labour’s commitment to end tax breaks for private schools.
Do the Liberal Democrats support the tax break? “I think this is a complete red herring from various commentators,” Davey replies. “We need to invest in public services and particularly education. Education is facing huge, huge cuts. And it needs a serious funding proposal.”
When the Lib Dems were in government, education spending fell sharply in real terms. If Davey is opposed to cuts to the education budget today, does he regret imposing austerity? “I fought the Tories every single day,” he said emphatically. “We fought the Tories every single day. And in my patch, not only was I fighting the Tories every day, I was beating them. So you look at my record, as secretary of state for energy and climate change, there was massive investment.”
Fighting something usually means that you oppose it. Austerity was the defining task of the coalition. Davey seems to be suggesting he opposed the central aim of that government. If so, why did he stay? “We were fighting to make sure we looked after people who were more vulnerable. So one of the classic Lib Dem policies that we got initiated and put in very successfully was taking the lowest paid out of income tax [by raising the personal allowance].”
Davey’s defence of the Lib Dems’ time in coalition can be distilled into two key arguments. First, the cuts worsened when they left government and hence they softened the blow. Second, the Lib Dems secured key policies such as green investment and a higher personal allowance that wouldn’t otherwise have been implemented.
“They were harder in so many areas and we’ve ended up with chaos and instability. And one of the reasons I think it’s timely tomorrow to make a speech on electoral reform,” he said, eager to move on from austerity, “is because the Tories have always said that first past the post means stable government. Well, since 2015 we’ve not seen seven years of stable government even though it’s been the Tories in power by themselves.”
The following day, Davey delivered a speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research on the need for proportional representation in a windowless basement near Westminster. “This year marks a century since the Liberal Party made its first commitment to proportional representation,” he began, in the room of around 25 people. He spoke about holding MPs to account and how a strong democracy produces a strong economy. An attendee sipping a bottle of Peroni afterwards gave his verdict. He paused, shrugged, and said: “He’s sensible.”
Davey framed electoral reform as a remedy for the political scandals of recent years. Many commentators had also hailed the arrival of Rishi Sunak in Downing Street as the return of sensible government. Sunak’s style – that of a reassuring technocrat who is in control – is reminiscent of Davey’s Conservative partners during the coalition era. I asked him whether Sunak reminded him of David Cameron and George Osborne.
“Not particularly,” he replied. “I think he [Sunak] and the Tory party have moved to the right. And I find that deeply troubling. Not only have they moved to the right, they’re even more incompetent. There were some incompetent Tory ministers during that government but since, I mean, it takes my breath away.” This seems to be the key argument against the Conservatives for Davey. Austerity wasn’t the problem – it’s that the Conservatives have descended into chaos and incompetence. They have mismanaged the country to the extent that they are no longer fit for office. This seems to leave the Lib Dems in a tricky position, however. Davey refuses to give an honest appraisal of the economy of the past 12 years because he helped to build it. And if he can’t show that he understands the past, how can he sell a plan for the future?
This article was originally published on 10 December 2022, it is being repromoted to coincide with the Lib Dem 2023 Autumn conference.
[See also: Who’s afraid of a Lib-Lab coalition?]