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Artillery Row

What are the LibDems for?

The next leader of the LibDems should model herself on Nigel Farage

Nominations have closed for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats. It will be a straight fight between Ed Davey and Layla Moran. Party members can start voting by post on 30 July and the winner will be announced following the close of poll on 26 August. It is news that has made few headlines, even in newspapers that were, until December, excitedly postulating the LibDems returning as the power-brokers of British politics. The last eight months have been brutal.

Having first been elected to his Kingston and Surbiton constituency back in 1997, the 54-year-old Davey has now (despite a break between 2015-17) been in Parliament longer than any other serving LibDem MP. With his three years during the Cameron-Clegg coalition as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (a plumb portfolio for any environmentally-minded LibDem) he has Cabinet experience. He has been acting co-leader of the party since Jo Swinson lost her seat in December.

By comparison his leadership rival is an ingénue. Still in her thirties, Layla Moran has been an MP for three years, having previously taught maths and physics in international schools. With the advantage that should come with effective incumbency, Davey should be a shoe-in. But he is not – the result is very much “in play.” How could this possibly be the case?

Davey’s experience is a double-edged sword. That he spent three years sitting around a Cabinet table alongside Tories does not play well with those activists who cannot think of their party’s five years in government without a shudder of disgust, especially since the LibDems have never recovered electorally from it. With the exceptions of Alistair Carmichael and the former leader, Tim Farron, there are now no other LibDem MPs with parliamentary experience pre-dating 2016. So, whilst Davey can play the pater familias, the reality is that some of his colleagues look at where that experience led the party and want to forget it. Thus far, five MPs have endorsed him, against three for Layla Moran – a majority for Davey but hardly a commanding one.

Davey has already lost once before. Following Vince Cable’s resignation as party leader, he secured only 36 percent of the vote in a head-to-head with Jo Swinson in July last year. Swinson, though, was widely seen as the darling of the party, the young woman with the vim to put the party back on the front foot. This she did, briefly but not successfully – helping to clear the way for a December general election that reduced the tally of LibDem MPs from twelve to eleven (the net minus one, being herself).

Will party members who last summer prioritised Swinson’s optimism to Davey’s experience, repeat the same preferences one year later? On policy, there is not much to choose between Davey and Moran. They both want to focus on education and the environment. But Moran has the same freshness – or boundless self-confidence if you prefer – that Swinson brought. Furthermore, as someone who describes her identities as British-Palestinian and pansexual, she is naturally appealing to activists who want someone who is naturally attractive to the identity focus of younger voters than male, pale and stale Sir Ed Davey.

This depiction of Davey as a functional, uninspiring, politician does the man a disservice. Both as a child and as a parent he has had to be a carer for other members of his family and he is the recipient of a bravery award for once leaping down from a Clapham Junction platform to save a woman who had fallen on to the track from an oncoming train.

His greatest problem is that if he is going to be the same sort of leader that he is as acting leader, then that is not very inspiring. Since he assumed the acting co-leadership (the party president, Mark Pack, is also co-leader but as the non-parliamentarian is in the background), Davey has struggled to make any impact upon public consciousness.

But how could he? The “new leader story” these past three months has been Keir Starmer’s ascent over Labour and entrenchment of his authority as Leader of the Opposition. It is not the tortoise-like pace by which the UK’s fourth largest party creeps towards divining its new leader.

Westminster has offered few opportunities for Davey to shine. Most PMQs pass without any question from him, and when he does get a look-in, it is long after Starmer or Ian Blackford, Westminster ringmaster of the SNP’s 48 MPs, have exhausted the obvious lines of attack.

Yet, whilst Davey has been unlucky with his timing, his chosen strategy has ensured the marginality of the LibDems amidst the greatest challenge facing the country. Whilst the Coronavirus crisis has naturally focussed attention on the government’s response, Starmer gets airtime to articulate Labour’s “constructive opposition” (agree with the Lockdown, find fault with how the public health response has been managed). This is almost exactly the same position as Davey. Consequently, there has been next to no newsworthiness in giving the LibDem spokesman airtime to echo what the Leader of the Opposition has already said.

If the LibDems just want to elect a leader who will serve as junior coalition partner in the next Labour government, then Davey is the man.

From a purely political perspective, Davey has missed a trick. Back in 2003, when both Labour and Conservative frontbenches supported the Iraq war, Charles Kennedy’s positioning of the LibDems as the anti-war party gained both attention and respect. The party had a clear point and purpose. By comparison, what has been the point of the LibDems whilst Covid-19 has killed 45,000 Britons and the Lockdown has reduced the economy by a quarter? It is very hard for the LibDems to exude gravitas when talking about how massive projections of public sector power can be better administered when only one of their eleven MPs (Davey) has ever run a government department. Voters may appreciate the sentiment, but not naturally look to the LibDems for the delivery. To give the party a clear message, Davey needed to articulate principle rather than detail.

There is perhaps a fifth to a quarter of the electorate who suspect the Lockdown has been far more draconian than was ever necessary. That position is now largely occupied by voters on the right of the political spectrum. What was once called the Liberal Party has surrendered much of the individualist/libertarian/smaller state ground in order to embrace supra-national, regulation-heavy, social democracy. The irony – entirely lost on the LibDem leadership – is that the European government that did distinguish itself against the consensus by saying it backed individuals rather than state diktat to judge appropriate risk mitigation was the Social Democrat-Green coalition in Sweden.

Imagining that Davey would have given the LibDems this clear definition as the party of individual liberty and saviour of millions of jobs is, of course, fantasy politics writ large. Given the temper of his party, he could never have got away with it, even he had wanted to. And this goes to the heart of the problem facing whoever emerges as the party’s leader in August. Given that returning to the European Union is a long term aspiration not a plausible short-term goal, what else distinguishes the LibDems? Sure, they care passionately about schools and climate change – but Keir Starmer can give a fairly convincing pitch on those topics too when he puts his mind to it.

If the LibDems want to elect a leader who will serve as junior coalition partner in the next Labour government as easily, naturally and unremarkably as he once did in David Cameron’s Cabinet, then Davey is the man. They might also ask what is the point.

If Layla Moran wants to offer a different vision (scooping up some floating Green votes and attracting young non-voters in doing so) she needs to repurpose the ambition of her party. The future for Britain’s fourth largest party is not to be the most earnestly respectable of the four. It is to shift the nature of politics itself, by being the most irresponsible, the most anarchic, the most creatively-destructive. She will not want to do so, but honestly, Layla Moran should take inspiration from Nigel Farage.

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