The challenges facing Ed Davey as the new Liberal Democrat leader

The former cabinet minister inherits a party with just 11 MPs – but the Lib Dems are in a stronger position than it may appear. 

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Ed Davey has been elected leader of the Liberal Democrats, beating opponent Layla Moran by 42,756 votes to 24,564.

Davey, the former energy secretary, who had been acting co-leader of the party since Jo Swinson lost her seat in the December 2019 general election, was the bookies’ favourite to win after polling in January indicated a strong lead in his favour. With no polling during the contest, however, and an energetic campaign from Moran, party insiders had expected the final results to be tight. In the end, it was a decisive victory for Davey, which was announced this morning at a closed event in central London. 

At the somewhat muted affair, the new leader delivered a short speech to the small number of socially distanced attendees, in which he paid tribute to Moran and to the party, before saying the Liberal Democrats need to “wake up and smell the coffee” after three disappointing general election results.

“The truth is voters don’t believe we share their values,” Davey said. “Nationally, voters have been sending us a message, but we are not listening. I have got that message, I am listening now.” Marking a break with the party’s “Stop Brexit” message at the last general election, he added: “Whether you voted for Brexit or Remain, my message for you is this: I will travel up and down the country to meet you.”  

Davey fought a campaign strongly predicated on his prior experience as a cabinet minister, his track record as a campaigner, and his dogged focus on two issues: the climate emergency – he pointed to his record of tripling renewable energy during the coalition government – and social care, having been a carer to his ill mother in his teenage years and, now, the father to a young disabled son. Davey secured support from many of the party’s most senior figures, including former leader Tim Farron and the highly regarded new MP for St Albans, Daisy Cooper. 

The new leader chose to be clear-sighted about the challenge ahead for the Liberal Democrats, which fell to 11 MPs at the last election and lost their leader. Moran’s team emphasised during the contest that the party is now trailing at a disappointing 6 per cent in the polls, a case, they argued, for a decisive break with the past and a fresh start. 

Davey inherits a challenge, but the party is in a stronger position to rebuild itself than these headline figures would indicate: the 2019 general election represented a recovery of sorts for the Lib Dems, and they are now second in 91 seats, compared with 38 in 2017. The new leader and his team are well aware that Liberal Democrat success is strongly correlated with the popularity of the Labour leader.

In most of their target seats for the next general election, the Liberal Democrats are the main challengers to a Conservative incumbent, with the next-closest party a distant third. Between a more polarising Conservative leader and a more popular Labour one, Davey’s hope is to establish the Liberal Democrats as the main progressive challenger to the Tories in their target seats, and then to win over enough moderate Conservative voters to clinch those seats. If he can do that, he may slowly turn the party’s fortunes around.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman

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