Ed Davey can make the Lib Dems liberal again

27 August 2020

10:25 PM

27 August 2020

10:25 PM

It seems as though Layla Moran’s offer to make the Lib Dems ‘more radical than Labour’ has been decisively rejected. Her rival Ed Davey won over 60 per cent of the votes cast and is the party’s new leader after an interminable and dire leadership contest.

After the result was announced, Davey got up and gave a short, remarkably good speech. It was humble and to the point. The Lib Dems have lost touch with most voters, he said, and he was going to make it his mission to try and win back as many as he could by getting in touch with their true concerns. His words immediately reminded me of the way Keir Starmer had won the leadership of his party in April. Has Ed Davey pulled the same trick here?

Starmer ran to the left of where his sensibilities appear to lie, at least from the way he has acted since becoming leader. His campaign had ‘ten pledges’ which were mostly awful, Corbyn-lite nonsense. While he hasn’t repudiated them as yet, Starmer seems to be distancing himself from the culture his ten pledges sprang from.

Similarly, Davey ran to the left of where I think his true heart lies. Perhaps it was for the same reasons I suspect Starmer ran his campaign closer to Corbynism than where he intends to lead. Why? Because he knew he had the right of his party shored up and needed as much of the left as possible to not only win, but win big. If this was the plan, it seems to have paid off handsomely for the new leader of the Lib Dems, as it did for Starmer.

Now we get to find out who is the true Ed Davey: the radical left-winger only marginally to the right of Layla Moran, or a genuine liberal who can actually tempt a significant number of voters in key seats back into the fold. God knows, we need a liberal party espousing actual liberal values right about now. Could Ed lead the Lib Dems back to national relevance?

My head says no, but my heart says maybe. I feel a bit like how a Newcastle United supporter might have done when Kevin Keegan became manager for a second time. Deep down you know the gaffer doesn’t really have what it takes, but there is that tiny hint that it might all magically work out for the best. For those of you who do not follow football, the second Keegan spell at Newcastle was a disaster, lasting less than nine months. Whatever happens, the thing I fear most is yet another Lib Dem leadership contest in early 2021. For all of our sakes, please God, no.

In a Coffee House article a few weeks ago, I said that Davey wasn’t good enough to turn the Lib Dems’ fortunes around. I’ve always found Davey to be a disappointing underperformer. But could he prove me wrong?

Davey has an amazing back story. He’s also clearly a decent person and a true liberal at heart. His understanding of how public policy works blows away anyone who has either been leader or ran for it since the fall of Clegg, with the possible exception of Vince Cable. I recall a leadership debate last time around (when Jo Swinson won) where Davey’s understanding of the way business works was light years ahead of his then rival.

His first speech as leader made me think that maybe, just maybe, Davey can finally live up to some of his potential. But let’s be clear about what this means: Davey won’t be a 21st century Winston Churchill. He won’t lead the Lib Dems to a parliamentary majority in 2024. Davey will have excelled at the job if he can just make the Lib Dems somewhat nationally relevant again; to have the Labour party figure that it might be better to go easy on the Lib Dems in Con-Lib marginals as opposed to just trying to wipe the yellows off the map.

I think it is just about possible that Ed Davey and his team understand the potential Lib Dem vote as it truly exists as opposed to the way some radical leftists within the Lib Dem membership would like it to be. If this is the case, perhaps the Lib Dems can steal votes from a statist Conservative party that has ditched its liberal instincts for the time being at the next general election.

There I go again: having some hope in the Lib Dems, however vague and qualified. Come on, Ed – making the Lib Dems truly liberal again would be a victory in and of itself.

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