Gavin Esler interviews Leader of the Liberal Democrats Sir Ed Davey, about his compassionate brand of liberalism and the possibility of his party holding the balance of power after the next election
British politics is full of delusions that we sometimes confuse with traditions. One peculiar yet traditional delusion is the quaint idea that politicians resign if they are caught lying or being generally incompetent. Boris Johnson shattered that delusion. He invented a new tradition in which lying and general uselessness are often rewarded rather than punished. (You probably know the names of those involved.) Another traditional British delusion was the idea that, compared to other countries, British politics is free from corruption. That began to crumble during the 2009 parliamentary expenses scandal. It fell apart completely with the arrival of some of our Russian friends in Londongrad, their pockets full of roubles, and the Conservative chumocracy of party donors and old pals who – strictly on merit, obviously – obtained lucrative government contracts. Yet the most unshakable delusion in British public life remains the idea that the United Kingdom’s Westminster parliament is based on a “two-party system” of government-vs-opposition which guarantees political stability and is therefore “the envy of the world”. The inconvenient truth is that we now have instead a multi-party mishmash which extends way beyond Labour and the Conservatives to include the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the DUP, Sinn Féin, plus the Greens and a few others. But in that complex mix, we also have a party of great survivors. They are called the Liberal Democrats. Their leader is Sir Ed Davey. Perspective wanted to meet him because he and his party may yet, with a bit of justified optimism, believe they scent the sniff of power.
In today’s British politics, going on about facts is a bit like talking dirty
The Liberals, as they once were, last formed a government on their own in 1906, although Davey himself was one of the Lib Dem ministers in David Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition from 2010 onwards. The Lib Dems were punished severely for propping up the Tories. The number of Lib Dem MPs in 2010 was 57 but fell to just eleven in 2019. Yet if recent polling is to be believed, at the next election the Lib Dems may again hold the balance of power and emerge perhaps as a junior partner in what could this time be an anti-Tory coalition. So when I went to meet Sir Ed Davey in his office round the corner from the Palace of Westminster I wanted to know how, and why, his party keeps going when the facts and traditions of British political life seem to be so firmly stacked against them. Perhaps Davey and the Lib Dems represent what the Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci called “the pessimism of the intellect but the optimism of the will”.
Davey, sitting relaxed in his parliamentary office, does seem a living demonstration of optimism, or at least the triumph of hope over experience. He lost his ministerial career and his seat in the London suburbs in 2015 yet bounced back convincingly in the same seat just two years later. Since he became party leader in 2020, things have begun to turn a bit in the Lib Dems’ favour. They have had two by-election successes in Chesham & Amersham and North Shropshire. Another Conservative seat, Tiverton & Honiton in Devon, may fall to them later this month. But our conversation begins with a less happy discussion – the abysmal state of British politics now, from the drunken parties in Downing Street, to lying in public life and, inevitably, to the man David Cameron once memorably described as “the greased piglet” who “manages to slip through other people’s hands where mere mortals fail” – that other great survivor, Boris Johnson.
“There’s no integrity, there’s no morality. There’s no decency,” Davey says of the Tory party. “They don’t have a real desire to improve the country as far as I can see. They want to be in power for power’s sake. I think Boris Johnson is probably the worst example of it. I mean, to be fair to past Conservative leaders, I may not have agreed with them, but I had some respect for them. What Johnson is doing, and the modern Tory Party… they will say anything and do anything. It’s like they don’t have a set of core beliefs. It’s like nailing jelly to the wall with Boris Johnson. His whole career is made on lies.”
Johnson’s lying is nowadays not a matter for debate, but I wonder why British people, or indeed decent Conservative MPs and party members, tolerate as a leader someone who never has had any real relationship with the truth.
“We obviously have scratched our heads about that,” Davey responds. “You saw it in Trump. There are these politicians around the world who say things which are palpably and demonstrably untrue. But it doesn’t seem to matter. And I guess when you look at these populist leaders, it’s not based on their appeal to reason. They’re appealing to emotion and to fear. Whether it’s fears of the stranger or the unknown, and stereotyping and caricaturing their opponents in ways which previously was not thought fair play…. I don’t know why he thinks he can get away with it, but he’s just managed to. And this distraction politics he does… I mean, I occasionally see this video on my Twitter feed, with people retweeting some interview he gave a few years ago where he said it’s his strategy to get people to look away from the truth.”
But it works, I suggest to Davey. In the 2020s Johnson’s strategic lying is part of what might be called his political genius. He gets into trouble yet captures the next day’s headlines with vacuous soundbites and promises of Great Things To Come, despite no coherent political philosophy, no realistic policies and no track record of delivering anything. He didn’t build the bridges or the new hospitals he promised, nor did he manage to “Get Brexit Done”, otherwise he wouldn’t perpetually be trying to renegotiate it. Davey agrees, at least in part.
“The fact he lies on an industrial scale to the House of Commons…” Davey shakes his head mournfully and then trails off. “There was a time when people worried about leaders who lied. To be more optimistic, I think there are people out there who are seeing through him more. And we found this is Chesham and we found it in North Shropshire. We’re beginning to find it in Tiverton and Honiton. Some lifelong Tories – not all Tories, but some lifelong Tories – are going, ‘I cannot put up with this.’ And they do want someone who tells the truth. Someone who really has the national interest at heart, has a plan, has a strategy. And Johnson has none of that. So the optimism is that there are some Tories out there who are rejecting him.”
“It’s the first parliamentary party I’ve been in that’s majority women… the next leader will be a woman”
Davey’s own political focus, he says bluntly, is in taking as many Tory seats as possible. It’s a long haul even though across the country there’s a sense of malaise and a desire for change. And some change is happening. After those two recent by-election victories, nine of the thirteen Lib Dem MPs are now women. Davey is proud of that. “It’s the first parliamentary party I’ve been in that’s majority women,” he says, suggesting that a woman will probably be the next Lib Dem leader. “You notice the difference and it’s fantastic.”
Davey also believes – not very controversially – that what characterises the Lib Dems is they are people who’d rather solve problems than create them. That means they may be willing coalition partners to get things done. Britain is, he says, “better governed if people are trying to bring together the country, not divide it. If they’re trying to bring the evidence, work out what’s the right thing to do based on fact.”
“Lib Dem members delight in evidence-based politics”
Ooooh, he said the F-word! Facts! I jump in. Surely in today’s British politics, going on about facts is a bit like talking dirty. What role do facts and evidence and truth really play in 2022 in Britain after the Sue Gray report and Michael Gove lecturing us that we have “had enough of experts?” I remember in 2016 people went on about “Facts” about Brexit making us poorer, creating trade bureaucracies, queues at airports, queues of lorries at Dover, crops unpicked in the fields, labour shortages in the hospitality industry and unrest in Northern Ireland. All of it came to pass. Does anyone want facts any more? Davey responds robustly with a few facts of his own.
“There was a survey of Lib Dem members about what their key interests were – the environment and education, as you’d expect. But one of the things that struck me was the Lib Dem members’ delight in evidence-based politics.”
Davey understands the facts of public life in Britain right now truly are grim – Gramsci’s pessimism of the intellect – but he keeps going because, in the end, he thinks Britain deserves better and indeed that Britain is better than this. He describes himself as a “deeply patriotic person” who will be “going to more Jubilee parties than anyone” and “our patriotism is real” whereas some of the patriotism he sees from the Conservatives is “fabricated”. In our exchanges he reminds me of a quote from his great Liberal predecessor, William Ewart Gladstone, who defined nineteenth century politics by saying that “Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence. Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear.”
Whether the Lib Dems will benefit much at the next general election from “trusting the people” and reminding them of their patriotism remains an open question. Yet our interview really comes alive here because Davey suddenly switches directly from politics to talking about himself as a son and a father, and how that connects with his political ambitions.
“We must always be the people who talk rational, evidence-based politics. However, that doesn’t stop you appealing to people’s emotions because emotions can be true to life and to what people feel and what is right. So I crossed the Rubicon when I was standing for leadership (in 2021), to talk about myself, because I’ve been a carer much of my life.”
His personal story is stark and moving. “My father died when I was four. My mum became terminally ill. I looked after her until she died when I was fifteen. I was a young carer. She was an only child, so when her parents grew older… I was very close to her, I looked after her. And now I have a disabled son, and my wife and I look after him. I’ve been a carer a lot of my life and that’s given me a perspective that I bring to debate on health and care. It’s a perspective on humanity.”
I’m trying to imagine Boris Johnson saying anything like this. I can’t. My imagination fails me. Or rather, Johnson fails us all because he is literally care-less, in any of its meanings. Davey goes on to explain how caring connects people – millions of us – even if we don’t call ourselves carers.
“If you talk about looking after loved ones, , (people say), ‘Yeah, well, that is me.’ And there’s about ten million people looking after loved ones. More than three times the amount of people who voted for us in the last election, right? And then if you talk about parents, there’s nothing more emotional. I’ll never forget the day I held my first child in my hands… every parent has that complete change… that emotion…there’s nothing else like it. So if you can speak to parents as who they are, and their ambitions and dreams for their children, I think this is the way we have to talk.”
Davey is clearly getting to the core of what you might call his brand of “compassionate liberalism”, and doesn’t miss the opportunity to make a comparison with the Tories. “Certainly the Tory right is incapable of talking about that in a credible way,” he says bluntly. “They’ll mouth the words. But no one thinks Johnson cares. Only about himself. Carrie doesn’t even think he cares. I want to position the Liberal Democrats as a party that cares about people, genuinely. Our community politics, the fact that we’re local councillors and our candidates are rooted in their communities and they care about their communities and they want to serve their communities.”
Davey was born in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire – part of the Red Wall that once was Labour and has now gone Tory. After university and a Masters degree in economics, he worked for a management consultancy before being first elected to parliament in 1997. He describes himself as a “classic liberal”, with a focus on the economy. In the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition Davey served as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and he speaks proudly of how a managed fuel market with “Contracts For Differences” that he introduced when in government helped the consumer by not allowing companies to make windfall profits, as is happening with some companies now. By contrast, Johnson’s policies are “pathetic”, he says, because “he is a NIMTO politician,” who talks big but offers “Not In My Term of Office” solutions.
The environment and nature conservation are two of Davey’s real political passions. He’s hardly a show-off but does draw my attention to his cufflinks, shaped like wind turbines. Reading about the environment was what first brought him into politics as a young man, he says.
“The Conservative voters we need to win do care about the climate… but the issue that really moves them is more on the nature side, and that’s sewage.”He’s right, of course. The sight of raw sewage pumping into rivers and the sea is both disgusting and a potential vote winner for any politician who can penalise the rather unloved water companies, monopolies that are making huge profits. But the big question is whether Davey’s evidence-based party with a leader who does care – both for his family and for the country – can reconnect with the British people as much as Nick Clegg did in 2010. It’s very difficult without that other Lib Dem long-term goal, reform of our archaic voting system. Boris Johnson’s 2019 parliamentary “landslide” was based on just 43.6% of the vote. That means 56% of British people voted against the Conservatives, yet they still ended up with a huge majority of 80 seats. Davey thinks reform will come, but – Fact – a Lib Dem attempt to introduce a fairer system to end First Past The Post voting was rejected in a referendum in 2011. Davey counters that currently “our electoral system is so awful that many voters work out how they should vote not necessarily for something, but against something. I want a voting system that allows people to vote for what they want,” rather than what he calls “the chaos of majoritarian rule,” when a prime minister “has all the power and is able to get away with stuff and the party of the day, mainly the Tory party, is unable to control them.” We’ve gone from one type of sewage to another, that in parliament itself.
As we finish Davey is heading back to the Commons where “the chaos of majoritarian rule” continues. At this stage, Boris Johnson appears to have survived yet another scandal, after the publication of the Sue Gray report. I decide I need to remind myself about one of the greatest political detective stories in British history, George Dangerfield’s classic from 1935, The Strange Death of Liberal England. Why did the Liberals lose the plot? Dangerfield’s thesis – although other historians disagree – is broadly that, after its huge landslide victory in the 1906 general election, the Liberal Party destroyed itself as a major force in British politics by focusing on issues that didn’t really connect with enough voters. But these issues included reform of the House of Lords, Irish Home Rule, pensions for the elderly, free school meals for children, the taxing and restricting of pubs through licensing laws and votes for women. Perhaps the 1906 version of Piers Morgan or the Conservative-friendly newspaper columnists of the day frothed at the mouth at these unflinchingly “woke” policies of the early 1900s, but who, today, would say the 1906 Liberals got it all wrong? And who surveying today’s political mess in Westminster would argue against William Gladstone’s other great observation that “nothing that is morally wrong can be politically right?” Davey has a very tough fight on his hands, but he is right about the vote-winning potential of sewage. He needs to convince enough voters that he can get it out of our waterways and do something about the other kind of sewage that is being pumped into our politics too.
Gavin Esler is a writer and broadcaster, and author most recently of “How Britain Ends”
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