Ed Davey: "The Lib Dems can be the new home for the politically homeless"
Ed Davey believes the UK is on a dangerous path towards “extreme” politics. But, under his leadership, he says Liberal Democrats can become the natural home for pro-business, centrist politics. He talks to Charlotte Henry
It is somewhat unusual for an Oxford educated white man with a Knighthood to be an underdog, but Sir Ed Davey undoubtedly is that in the battle to become the next Lib Dem leader. His opponent, Jo Swinson, is the clear favourite with bookies and pundits.
Not that this has dented the MP for Kingston and Surbiton’s enthusiasm for the contest. “Having served in parliament for 20 years, I now feel I’ve got what it takes to lead our party at this historic moment,” he says.
It should come as no surprise that Davey is up for the fight. He first won the then newly created seat in 1997 by just 56 votes from Conservative Richard Tracey, who had been an MP for nearly 14 years. Davey lost the seat in the Lib Dems’ 2015 wipe-out, before regaining it in 2017. Indeed, he points to his campaign credentials as one of the reasons he should succeed Sir Vince Cable: “Given my campaigning history, where I’ve won elections when nobody expected me to do so, I think I can bring that substance and vision alongside the need to win. So, I think I’m well placed for the party at the moment.”
He has big ambitions for his resurgent party if he becomes leader too. “Why should we put a cap on our ambitions? We’ve never seen British politics in such a mess,” he says. “We’ve never seen both political parties so divided at the same time. Sometimes you’ve seen one divided. Sometimes you’ve seen the other one. You’ve never seen them both at the same time.”
Davey also believes that the Conservative and Labour parties have never been “so extreme”. “You’ve got an extremely right-wing Brexiteer Conservative government. It’s not just on Brexit where they’re out of touch with the British people, it’s on so many things. And you’ve got a Labour party led by the most extreme left-wing leader it has ever had with the Momentum left-wing strengthening its grip on the party. Entryism in the Tory party... these parties are in a serious, serious, mess and people need to recognise that.”
He said that while it “would be nonsense” to say the Lib Dems will win the next election “what we can say is we can now conceive of that”. “If you can conceive of something, if the story is plausible and you believe you are getting the strength in depth in members, in money, in voters, then why not think about that?”
Davey is clear he would like to be Prime Minister. However, in the current Brexit deadlock, he is also advocating a Government of National Unity.
“I think there are just about enough MPs from a plethora of parties who are so alarmed at a no deal prospect, who are so alarmed at the way our politics has been polluted by these hard-right Brexiteers, that they will come together. It will not be easy, but I could see a backbench Labour MP, I wouldn’t name them but you can guess who they might be, being given support from enough people from enough parties that we could send a message to the Palace that if they send for that member of Parliament they will be able to command a majority of the House of Commons.”
He says that this “Government of National Unity” would not be a coalition. “It would be a temporary phenomenon in order to stop no-deal. In order pass the paving legislation for a people’s vote and then be a caretaker government to oversee the process until that vote happened.”
Davey categorically rules out a coalition with a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour party or a Tory party led by Boris Johnson, if, as expected, the former London mayor soon wins his party’s contest. “With the current Brexit leadership of the Tory party and the current Brexit leadership of the Labour party and the fact they’re taking their parties to extremes, there’s no way we could do a deal with them,” he explains.
Davey says that instead he believes in evidence-based policy and a rational debate. “I know that’s not very popular in a world where you have been like Nigel Farage who just make things up and Boris Johnson who just believes in deception on an industrial scale.
“I know we’re getting used to the Trumps and Johnsons and Farages who just have a problem with the truth. It’s astonishing that these people can be anywhere near power when they are just mass deception – that’s what their game is. But we don’t all have to go down that route,” he adds.
Davey is confident he is not alone in this view, not least in Parliament. He tells The House that former Labour and Change UK MP Chuka Umunna will not be the last to join the Lib Dems. “To come into our party they clearly need to sign up to our values,” he says, “but I know a lot of pro-European liberal Tories. I worked with them in Coalition. I think there’s huge common ground between us. I’m not saying we agree on everything, but I don’t agree on everything with members of the Liberal Democrats! So we need to be a political home for the politically homeless. And that is liberals in the Tory party – pro-European liberals – and liberals in the Labour party.”
He adds that his party would also welcome social democrats uncomfortable in the direction of travel of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party. “There’s a social democrat tradition in our party and if you have those views, you’re a liberal, progressive, pro-European, you will find a huge warm welcome.”
Davey has worked on a wide range of issues during his two-decades in Parliament. Many of these focus on equality. “I had the privilege to move the amendment to get rid of Section 28,” he recalls.
“I believe in equality. Period. There’s no compromise. When people discriminate against any minority it offends me. The kind of transphobia we see, some of the appalling discrimination against the wider LGBT+ community... just abhorrent, but we’ve got lots of other things. Women are still discriminated against from period poverty to being sacked for being pregnant. We have our black and ethnic minority brothers and sisters get a rubbish time and we need to stand up for that. Just because the right-wing press screams headlines, you still stand up.”
Economics and the environment are also key policy areas for Davey. In the Conservative–Lib Dem coalition he served as a junior business minister before becoming the Environment Secretary after Chris Huhne was forced to resign.
He notes with amazement that “the Tories may elect someone who said ‘fuck business’. I thought they were the party of business. No longer under Boris.” Instead, he says that the Lib Dems “will we become the natural party of business”.
“I’m pro-competition. I’m pro-entrepreneur. I’m pro-free trade. It is in our liberal economic agenda, but we do not think markets are there to tell us what to do, we’re there, through democratic means, to shape those markets.”
Davey says there are lots of examples of this in action, but “the one I’m focussing on is climate change”. “It is absolutely outrageous that people in our country are allowed to not take account of climate change risks in their decisions. We are facing a climate emergency.”
The former Environment Secretary wants to make sure “all these institutions and corporates have to disclose both their investments in fossil fuels”.
He believes that “it is completely legitimate for a democratic government that signed the Paris Climate Treaty to say to everybody, including the City, including the banks, including our oil and gas majors, including everyone, this is a decision by government, it’s an international treaty obligation and everyone will play their part and that’s not happening at the moment.”
Despite being an advocate of evidence-based policy, Davey describes himself as an “emotional politician”. Indeed, when the conversation turns to the current situation in Hong Kong and what former Lib Dem leader Lord Paddy Ashdown, who campaigned for the rights of the Hong Kong Chinese, might think he swiftly moves the conversation on. “I have to be careful when I talk about Paddy because I get quite emotional. He was a great liberal leader. I’m an Ashdown liberal,” is as far as Davey will go.
He has also had a trying time in his personal life. He speaks movingly about the difficulties his family have faced caring for one of his sons, who is severely disable as a result of an undiagnosed neurological disorder. It was these personal and family issues that stopped him running for the party leadership in 2017, when some urged him to do so. His house at the time made caring for his son difficult and he did not want to further disrupt family life, which had already been turned upside down as a result of losing then regaining his seat in the space of two years. With some of those issues resolved, he now feels the time is right to try and lead his party.
After the Lib Dems’ recent success in the local and European elections, followed up in the polls, Davey thinks “there’s a big change and it’s been sustained… that does reflect the big issue of the day - Brexit.”
“To say that Michael Heseltine and Alastair Campbell both voted for us in elections is an astonishing thing,” he notes.
Davey believes that whatever the outcome in the coming months “Brexit will remain a big issue”. He says he “will do everything that I can in my power to stop” Britain leaving the EU, but notes “we’ve got years of negotiations whether we go with a deal or we do no deal”.
He thinks he is the right man to lead the opposition to Brexit. “I would be absolutely determined that we were ready for the big time.” Even with the Lib Dems recent success, this would be a tough ask, but if passed evidence is anything to go by, don’t bet on Ed Davey giving up the fight.