Sir Ed Davey’s path to the Liberal Democrat leadership has been tortuously inevitable. When, last December, Jo Swinson lost her seat in the general election that she had been instrumental in engineering, the MP for Kingston and Surbiton was one of only eleven Lib Dem MPs returned and the only one with Cabinet experience – having served for three years as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the Cameron-Clegg coalition government. If it was not to be him, then why not? To that question we shall return in a moment.
Davey’s path has been tortuous because it was back in January that he took over as acting leader (technically co-leader, but the LibDems’ president, Mark Pack, is not an MP so scarcely co-equal). The leadership election was supposed to be concluded in July. Did a party with 11 MPs require what would, in effect, be a seven month leadership campaign? Perhaps it could be argued that as Britain’s fourth largest party, the LibDems could afford the luxury of taking stock whilst others blundered on. But when Covid-19 intruded, the instinct of the party’s governing body, the Federal Board, was to postpone the leadership election until May 2021. There is “safety first” and then there is sheer indifference to political reality, sometimes also known as common sense.
In May, under internal pressure, the Federal Board dropped its insistence that the party would exist without a formal leader until May next year and instead commenced the process that led today to Sir Ed’s convincing victory over Layla Moran, the maverick MP for Oxford West and Abingdon who has been at Westminster for only three years.
At one stage, it looked as if four of the party’s eleven MPs were considering standing for the leadership, but in the end it was a straight fight between Ed Davey as the experienced, no thrills, no risks, contender against the youthful, zesty, Moran – a candidate more likely to garner headlines (a disproportionate number regarding her announcement that she was pansexual) but who was less likely to give a plausible impersonation of a credible unifier of the nation.
But if you are Britain’s fourth party, does it matter if voters do not see your leader as a prime minister-in-waiting? First Ukip and then the Brexit Party did much to transform British politics without many of their voters thinking Nigel Farage would soon be waving from the front door of Number 10.
The case for Moran was precisely that – like Farage – she was at once a politician and an anti-politician. She was someone who did not give a hoot for the rules of the game but was there to make a noise and shift the agenda on Lib Dem core issues like environmentalism and trans-rights. After all, you can change things without actually winning power. Just look at Black Lives Matter.
you can change things without actually winning power. Just look at Black Lives Matter.
Steady Eddy also supports trans rights, hyper-environmentalism, Europeanism and the other core progressive causes. But he gives the impression that he is an administrator, not an activist. Few doubted that he would win today, although his margin of victory – 42,756 votes (63.5 percent) to Moran’s 24,564 (36.5 percent) – might have generated gasps if only there had been enough people in the socially distanced leadership announcement suite from where the result was streamed. The issue is, do the Lib Dems need an aspiring administrator?
That question has become more pertinent since Labour replaced Jeremy Corbyn with Sir Keir Starmer, swapping a campaigner for a highly competent lawyer.
Even if Ed Davey manages to carve out a niche for the Lib Dems, his party is still going to trail far behind Starmer’s Labour at the next general election. The best he can hope to achieve is a minor role in an unevenly balanced coalition with Labour. In return for keeping Labour in office, he might be allowed to represent the British government at various climate change conferences around the globe. Is this sufficient motivation to keep Lib Dem activists pushing leaflets through letterboxes for the next four years?
In return for this titbit from Sir Keir’s kitchen table, Davey’s price would be electoral reform. But Starmer will be guided by whether any form of proportional representation is in Labour’s self-interest (which, on current calculations, it is not). Britain had a national referendum on the Alternative Vote back in 2011 – which received the clear responses that there was not much interest but the electorate would nevertheless rather stick with First Past The Post (FPTP). What would Davey demand in the post-election stitch-up of 2024, that FPTP is ditched without a further referendum on the subject because he suspects he would lose any such vote? It cannot be said that the Lib Dems’ recent history of being the party that ignores referendum verdicts has done it much favours at the ballot box.
In his victor’s acceptance speech this morning, Davey offered no fresh policy pledges, merely an acknowledgement that the party had three general election catastrophes under its belt and that ordinary people did not see it as the party that fights for them. His analysis cannot be faulted. “We must change, we have to wake up and smell the coffee” he declared, combining an appeal to the future with a worn-out phrase. His instinct to change is nevertheless right. But change to what?
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