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What do Liberal Democrat MPs make of the leadership race so far?

As debate rages over whether the party should tack to the left, Liberal Democrat MPs are divided over their past, and over the personalities of the leadership contenders

If you speak privately to Liberal Democrat MPs about their thoughts on the contest for the next party leader, you may find an unexpected theme emerges: Canterbury. 

That is, neither the Tales nor the cathedral, but one of the most-watched and debated marginals in the 2019 general election. You may recall the controversy: in 2017, Rosie Duffield, the pro-Remain and not at all pro-Corbyn Labour MP for the constituency, won the seat by a margin of only 187.

In 2019, among those hoping to stop a Conservative majority, or Brexit, or both, a debate arose as to whether the Liberal Democrats should stand aside for her, a candidate with whom they broadly shared a common purpose, in this tight Labour/Conservative marginal.

The original Liberal Democrat candidate, Tim Walker, stood aside for Duffield, but the party stood another candidate in his place. After a huge amount of dedicated campaigning, including from the Women’s Equality Party and other groups encouraging tactical voting to stop Brexit, Duffield held the seat with an increased majority.

“We can’t have another Canterbury,” one Liberal Democrat MP says, reflecting on where the party must go next as they elect a new leader. Standing against Duffield in Canterbury was embarrassing: they argue, an example of the party straying from its values as a progressive party of the left and failing to know its real enemy: the Conservatives. 

[See more: What will the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey cost Keir Starmer?]

Another MP, unprompted, expresses precisely the opposite view when reflecting on the leadership race. The Liberal Democrats did Labour a favour, they say, by standing in Canterbury at the last election, splintering the Conservative vote in Labour’s favour by taking votes from Remainer Conservatives who would never have voted Labour. In purely strategic terms, working productively with Labour does not, they argue, entail an ever-closer relationship with the party. 

Canterbury is a recent, polarising example of the discussion that is now dominating the Liberal Democrat leadership contest: whether the path to success is one in which the Liberal Democrats actively lean into the perception that they are closer to Labour, and move left to do that, or whether this would be tactically disastrous. 

The agenda was set by Wera Hobhouse, the MP for Bath who ducked out of the contest this week after running a brief but punchy campaign in which she called on the party to “abandon equidistance”, calling for it to explicitly state a preference of Labour over the Conservatives and rule out coalition with the latter.

This soon saw Layla Moran, one of the two remaining contenders, dialling up her own rhetoric in this regard. She declared that the Liberal Democrats under her leadership would be “more radical than Labour” and would doggedly pursue the voters that Labour is currently “taking for granted”: “students, young people, and anyone who wants massive change.”

She argued that a space on the electoral landscape has been vacated with the replacement of Jeremy Corbyn by Keir Starmer as Labour leader; as he goes in pursuit of the voters Labour lost at the last election, the Corbynite demographic is, Moran argues, ripe for the taking.

Her opponent, the current acting co-leader, Ed Davey, has made his own position clear: that tacking to the left of Labour is no way to win back seats, and it is risky to define the Liberal Democrat position in relation to a party whose policy programme isn’t known yet. In a punchy intervention in the New Statesman, the former leader Tim Farron expressed the same view: “A battle to be 'leftier than thou' would be a self-indulgent path to oblivion.” 

For those backing Ed Davey, the question is primarily a tactical one, and one to which they believe his judgement, character and decades of experience make him best-placed to answer. His supporters make an implicit criticism of Moran as less tactically astute, giving the members what they want in terms of a “cooler” image and a closer relationship with Labour, without reckoning with the cold, hard facts of whether this would yield electoral results in seats where the Liberal Democrats need to attract tactical Labour voters, certainly, but also moderate Conservatives.

One MP who is backing Davey emphasises the need for a leader who connects with normal people, and jokes that Liberal Democrat members aren’t “normal”; again, an implicit criticism that Moran is popular among members, but won’t necessarily connect with the wider public. 

Those backing Moran profoundly disagree, seeing her as a strong communicator with a fresh, radical perspective who genuinely resonates with younger people. A priority for Lib Dem MPs when choosing a leader is whether they will achieve sufficient media cut-through, which is always a huge challenge as the third party. One MP who is backing Moran says she has got the knack for it, and Davey simply hasn’t. 

There is a recurring theme among the MPs who are supporting Moran: they have all been personally burned by the party’s record in coalition with the Conservatives, citing stories of difficult exchanges on doorsteps, or attack lines used in campaigning, long after the coalition ended, and often when the MP in question had no involvement in that period.

One MP, who was not in parliament during the coalition, recalls a particularly ferocious hustings in 2019, where an audience member cited how many times the then-leader, Jo Swinson, had voted for the bedroom tax. They don’t see how Ed Davey, who was energy secretary in the coalition, could avoid exposing the party to similar criticism in subsequent elections.

“We must look forward, not look back,” is the slogan in Moran’s latest campaign video. It is ostensibly about how society must change for the better post-Covid, but the second meaning is clear: she is the only lever the party can pull if it is to finally draw a line under that period. 

The lingering divisions over the coalition get to the root of the difference between Liberal Democrat MPs: some, broadly pro-Davey, think the party needs to be pragmatic and own its record in coalition if it is to return to a point where it is again in government and making meaningful change; others found that the coalition with the Conservatives profoundly challenged their political identity, and hope it will be restored and reaffirmed as radical and anti-Tory under Moran.  

[See more: Why isn’t Keir Starmer calling for Robert Jenrick to resign?]

Despite these fundamental differences, however, the gulf between the two contenders and those who back them is not necessarily as large as you might think from reading the above. Colleagues are still unclear over the extent to which tacking to the left is Moran’s serious proposal as an election strategy, and how much is simply an appeal to the political instincts of the Liberal Democrat membership during the leadership race.

Davey, meanwhile, has rejected the idea of moving left, but has been clear that he, too, sees the Liberal Democrats as a “radical, centre-left party” and himself as an “anti-Conservative politician”. 

In fact, there is a striking consensus among the party’s MPs, whoever they are backing, that the party performs best when it is more radical than Labour on certain issues. MPs supporting both candidates mention Universal Basic Income as an issue where the Liberal Democrats could outflank Labour. 

It is also worth remembering that, as a cohort of only 11, they are close colleagues who rub along well together; those with no ambitions of standing for the leadership agreed amongst themselves that the leadership should be contested, not a coronation, and that the process would be good for the party. 

Layla Moran and Ed Davey have both now cleared the nominations threshold to stand as candidates, and voting begins on 30 July, closing on 26 August. The MPs’ formal role in the process is over, and many of the 11 won't be stating a preference for either candidate publicly. But this group have a huge stake in the result, and have given great thought to the race behind the scenes. Their private disagreements and concerns offer a sense of what will be at stake for members in the weeks ahead; their areas of consensus already suggest some of the shape of Liberal Democrat politics to come. 

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman