Artillery Row

At least somebody’s having fun

Ed Davey grows more cheerful the sadder Rishi Sunak gets

It’s always the questions you forget to ask that haunt you. For instance, the revelation that a Reform Party candidate feels Britain should have done a deal with Adolf Hitler leads to the realisation that in all the interviews with Nigel Farage about D-Day last week, no one asked him whether he believed defeating fascism had been a good idea.

If that seems like a silly question, keep in mind that the party line on their candidate’s foray into alternative history – he wishes Britain had kept its “weird notions of international morality” under control and left the Nazis to do their thing – is that: “His historical perspective of what the UK could have done in the 30s was shared by the vast majority of the British establishment including the BBC of its day, and is probably true.”

This was, a party spokesman hastily explained, “no endorsement”. This was a useful clarification, because the “probably true” bit really does sound like an endorsement. Anyway this is all, the spokesman said, “offence archaeology”. Though as the comments were made in 2022, they’re really more “offence current affairs”. 

Elsewhere on the Don’t Mention The War campaign trail, Rishi Sunak was continuing his own apology tour, rocking gently back and forth as he told the BBC that he hadn’t considered resigning over the weekend. At this stage, writing anything about the prime minister feels like workplace bullying, so I simply note that election campaigns are gridded out day by day, and in the Conservative grid, the message for Monday was: “I just hope that veterans and others can find it in their hearts to forgive me.”

Let’s go to a happier place, and join Ed Davey, launching the Liberal Democrat manifesto. We were in an airy East London loft, a place with cushions on the chairs and industrial Nespresso machines. Life really is better with the Lib Dems. 

Labour are trying to look ready for government. The Conservatives are trying to look like they haven’t given up. What is the Lib Dem strategy? Davey spent a week being photographed having fun, and then last week released a poignant video about his life as a carer. 

We got a reprise of that today. After a slightly stiff opening attempt at joviality – “I’ve become a bit of a meme!” – he moved to the subject of himself. You can be cynical about this stuff: does it matter that Keir Starmer’s dad was a toolmaker or that Sunak’s mum was a pharmacist? Is health or industrial policy hereditary? But it’s hard to dispute that, done well, it connects with people. 

As Davey talked about losing first his father and then his mother to cancer, it looked like some of the candidates in the room were going to cry. When he talked about sitting with his dying mother, “trying to make the most of every minute”, he looked like he might go. And when he got to the subject of caring for his own disabled son, I thought we were all going to be sobbing. 

There was a policy thread to all this: the Lib Dems are focussing their manifesto on helping carers and the bereaved. What, the BBC asked, were we to make of the slalom between such weighty matters and the jollity of waterslides and paddleboards? 

“I do believe that politicians shouldn’t take themselves too seriously,” Davey replied, with what was clearly a well-prepared answer. “What we should do is take the interests of the British people seriously.”

Davey was at ease taking questions, happy to talk about his plans to raise taxes on very rich people or very slowly reverse Brexit. A Lib Dem hallmark is intensely discussed policies that are never likely to be implemented. And when, eventually, he was done, he had a cheerful announcement: “I’ve been told that an election is a rollercoaster, so I’m going to go on a rollercoaster!”

Is that a fair comparison? At Thorpe Park a couple of hours later, Davey went on two rides. The Rush swings wildly back and forth, while everyone screams. This feels like his party’s years in coalition. The Colossus weaves about all over the place, repeatedly corkscrewing, and everyone screams. That feels more like the Brexit years.

The real theme running through the campaign is that Davey – loves his kids, falls off paddleboards – is the kind of guy you’d be happy to have living next door. This is an ancient Lib Dem pitch, that they are the reasonable, likeable people of politics. Davey has a cuddly, teddy bearish look to him, a barrel torso on top of a tight waistband. The candidates sat behind him as he spoke all seemed like the kind of folk who’d let you borrow their mower. It seemed unlikely that any of them regret the defeat of Nazism, though perhaps, to be sure, we should have asked.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover