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Daisy Cooper: “I’ll be backing Ed Davey for Liberal Democrat leader”

The new MP for St Albans and star of the party's left is unexpectedly endorsing Ed Davey for Liberal Democrat leaderShe tells Ailbhe Rea why in an exclusive interview.

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Daisy Cooper has endorsed Ed Davey in the Liberal Democrat leadership contest, in what is both a boost for Davey’s campaign and an unexpected move from Cooper, a new MP who has been widely touted as a potential future leader herself.  

Speaking exclusively to the New Statesman, the MP for St Albans, who was tipped for a leadership bid this year, tells the NS: “I’ll be backing Ed. He has a real clarity of message, and over the last few weeks, he has developed a laser-like focus on two of the biggest issues that will define our future and affect people’s lives: the climate emergency and the crisis in social care.

“As somebody who’s spent many years trying to win a seat, I appreciate a grafter, and I think he is one. He’s got what it takes to really drive the party forward.”

Her endorsement will come as a surprise to Liberal Democrat members. Cooper was a prominent critic of the party’s record in coalition with the Conservatives, and, as a former candidate for party president, her views are well-known to the membership, who widely expected that if she were to run for the leadership herself, she would be the most ardently anti-coalition voice in the race. Having ruled herself out, the assumption was that she would be closer in outlook to Layla Moran. 

Why, I ask over Zoom, is she, a critic of the party’s record in coalition, backing Davey when she has the option of backing a candidate who didn’t serve in the coalition and who might be better able to draw a line under that era?

“My views are on the public record,” Cooper says. “I marched against tuition fees, I was outspoken against the bedroom tax. I think I was tweeting against the NHS and Social Care Bill from a hospital bed, and I was pretty outspoken against Nick Clegg, as well, especially for the fact that he didn’t promote many of our talented women MPs at the time soon enough. So you’re right, I’ve been very critical of the coalition and my views on that are known.

“But I think we have to own it. We can’t pretend that coalition didn’t happen, there were good bits and there were bad bits. We have to learn the lessons, but we also got some bits right and we have to be proud of our achievements. Even though I’ve just listed all the bits I think we got wrong, and where I was critical at the time, and have continued and maintained that view, I think one of the best bits of coalition was the tripling of renewable energy, and quite frankly, the person who was solely responsible for driving that agenda forward was Ed.”

“The fact of the matter is that I was critical of the coalition at the time, and I set out my stall at various points during the coalition. But I think what people may have misunderstood, perhaps, is that we can pretend it just didn’t happen and erase it from our history, and we can’t do that. We have to own coalition: we can’t pretend it just didn’t happen.”

Cooper ruled herself out of the leadership race in May, having been widely tipped as a rising star and a potential candidate for leader after Jo Swinson lost her seat unexpectedly in the general election. “The timing wasn’t right,” Cooper says of her decision not to stand. “I’ve been an MP for six months and when I hit my first 100 days, that was, I believe, the same day the country went into lockdown. I couldn’t with any conscience as a new MP divert my attention to other issues whilst our community was suffering so much. For now, I’m sticking with St Albans as my primary and sole focus, and want to make sure that we can weather this pandemic storm.”

Since then, she has taken an open-minded approach to deciding who she might back for leader. “I wanted to wait to see what both the candidates had to say. I was genuinely neutral, because I wanted them to set out their stall, I wanted to see their pitch to the members, I wanted to see the kind of messaging and track records that they each had to offer. I was genuinely open to being persuaded by both Ed and Layla.” 

“But having seen their initial pitches and spoken to them, I’ve basically been won over by Ed’s pitch. He has, as I say, this clarity of message and this laser-like focus on two big issues, which we need in order to get some coverage and get some cut-through. But also, he’s a real grafter. We’re a very large party, a large membership, for a small parliamentary team, and we have to be real dogged campaigners if we want to make an impact. I think he has that quality in spades.”

She is aware that many members would assume she is closer politically to Moran than to Davey. “The fact of the matter is that I’d say all of our MPs are pretty much centre left, and we’ve all had to fight the Tories in one way or another,” she says. “I don’t think the divisions are as big as some people might make out.”

There has been much discussion during the leadership campaign about whether the Liberal Democrats ought to tack to the left, after Moran said she wanted the party to be “more radical than Labour”. There is now “a huge gap in the market for a party that speaks to the concerns of young people in particular”, she said, stating that the party under her leadership would go after voters that Labour is “taking for granted”: “students, young people, and anyone who wants massive change”. It prompted former leader Tim Farron to write that moving to the left would be “bonkers”, a view shared by Ed Davey.

“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!” Cooper says. “There is certainly a gap in the market to win over young voters who have got a really raw deal at the moment, but that doesn’t mean we have to change our values or our pitch, it means that we have to persuade them that what we’re offering is worth voting for. We just have to make a strong case for the Liberal Democrats and our beliefs, and I think that should be enough.”

Cooper is clear that a large part of why she is backing Davey is for his “clarity of message”, with a clear focus on social care and the climate emergency. The Liberal Democrat membership votes on party policy, so the leader’s policy platform is, I suggest, less important than it is for other political parties. Is it mainly a question of which parts of the party’s electoral offer they emphasise and prioritise? 

“I think the mark of a good leader is that they can carry the membership with them,” she notes. “But you’re right; I think it’s mostly about priorities, and setting out our stall that we have strong liberal answers to two of the biggest issues that will define our future as a country.”

On the social care crisis, she notes, Davey speaks from personal experience. "He’s talked publicly and personally about his experience growing up as a carer and the fact that he also has a disabled son." 

She adds: "Social care in particular is a bread-and-butter issue that increasing numbers of people are very, very deeply worried about... It’s important that, as Liberal Democrats, we have a strong message that people deserve to live with dignity at every single stage of their life." 

Davey has "an incredibly strong track record on tackling the climate emergency", she says. "He’s managed to develop a very strong and detailed pitch about what should be happening to the green recovery."

Cooper “certainly wouldn’t rule out running in future”, she replies, when asked if she might run for leader at a later date. “But that’s a long way off”. There is a lot of speculation among her colleagues that she might soon stand for deputy leader, a position selected by a vote among the party’s MPs. Cooper laughs. “Do you know what? Just a few weeks ago, I ruled out running for leader, so I’m not even focusing on that. I literally just made the decision in the last couple of days to come out and back Ed. I’m focusing so much on St Albans and the case work that’s coming in, I just want to take one thing at a time, so, for now, just focusing on who I want to be leader.”

“I want a leader right now that’s going to talk about the Liberal Democrats. I want a leader that’s going to talk about why liberalism is the answer to the big, 21st-century challenges around misinformation and pandemics and the crisis in social care and the climate emergency. That’s what I want to hear, and I think it’s really important that we actually spend a lot more time talking about who we are as a party, our values, our vision for an open, internationalist country, and why we think liberalism is the answer. I think Ed is doing more of that, and I want to see even more.”

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman