The strange birth of Ed Davey’s anti-conservatism

By David Osland

Easily the most cynical soundbite I can recollect from a serious political figure in recent years is Ed Davey’s insistence that he is “an anti-Conservative politician” and that he has “fought them all his life.”

Just six years ago, Mr Davey held cabinet rank in a Conservative-led government that will be most remembered for bloody-minded vindictiveness towards the poor in general and the disabled in particular.

I could just about have bought into an apologetic mea culpa based on the premise ‘I’m sorry, we got that badly wrong, we’ve learned our lessons and we’ll never do it again.’

But for half a decade when it actually counted, Davey fought the Tories solely in the sense of propping them up. Blatant bilge of the variety enunciated by the Lib Dem leader with a straight face suggests a level of detachment bordering on clinical severity.

Today he was once again nipping at the anti-Conservative sherry, in the first of this season’s run of party leader conference speeches, with an address that ditched any notion of centrist equidistance between left and right and focused almost exclusively on high-octane Tory bashing.

This was the political equivalent of criticising your ex in public, the sort of thing usually not considered a good look for those seeking a new relationship.

Props to the ghost writers. While this wasn’t one for the ages, it was crisply scripted, with structure, dynamics and applause line piled upon applause line.

Anyone who has ever put words in the mouth of a politician will acknowledge a professional job that admirably served the ‘tonic for the troops’ function.

From the attack lines on government incompetence and unfairness to the maudlin compulsory patriotism and the bigging up of British sporting success, his words would not have sounded out of place from many MPs in the centre or even the soft left of the Labour Party.

Having seen Keir Starmer fail to work a crowd during his Labour leadership campaign, I’d even contend that Davey’s delivery from a public platform is considerably better. That said, the bar is somewhat low.

What stood out most was the on-loop denigration of the Conservative Party and all its works, including everything it has done since the lash-up that seems regrettably to somehow now elude Davey’s obviously unreliable memory.

In contravention of the usual advice against going negative, there were broadsides aimed at Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Gavin Williamson and Boris Johnson by name.

Labour was namechecked just once, in the context of winning Labour council seats. Let me repeat that, lest anyone at the back wasn’t paying attention to the subliminal messaging: council seats, not Westminster constituencies.

Lib Dem hopes for a return to relevance are centred on the so-called Blue Wall, the Home Counties Tory seats with large middle-class demographics, in which Labour has traditionally been weak.

These have been heightened by victory in the Chesham and Amersham by-election, on a 25 point swing, to which Davey naturally referred at several points.

But the Lib Dems and their predecessors have been pulling off by-election upsets for decades. Last June’s success is more likely to prove a one-off secured on the back of Nimbyism and HS2, and of no more lasting import than Orpington in 1962 or Bermondsey in 1983.

Davey has previously precluded any future agreements with the Conservative Party. But even that decision does not flow from a marked lack of ideological affinity.

He is, after all, a co-author of the sub-Thatcherite Orange Book manifesto of his party’s free market right in 2004, a volume that reinterpreted liberalism to mean austerity rather than liberty.

The reluctance to return to the Tory embrace stems instead from purest expediency. The backlash against the Clegg/Cameron love-in led to electoral wipeout, which took the Lib Dems down from 49 seats to 15, with further losses since.

They have been losing ground ever since. They took a mere 12% vote share in the 2019 general election and now poll just 8% or so. In other words, they’ve lost one voter in three in less than two years. That doesn’t look like an outfit on the brink of a big-time comeback to me.

There are elements of the laboratory form of liberalism as a doctrine that should appeal to the left, especially after the dominance of authoritarian strains of socialism throughout the twentieth century.

The stress on democracy; the egalitarianism; the insistence on civil liberties at home and ethics in foreign policy. They’re all there in the classic texts of the credo, if not always in the practice of the politicians that nominally subscribe.

Undercurrents of this school of thought occasionally still break cover, from Charlie Kennedy’s positioning to the left of New Labour over the Iraq War to Layla Moran’s support for Universal Basic Income today.

Trouble is, the recent run of Liberal Democrat leaders have ditched all that liberalism nonsense, or indeed any apparent distinct belief system. One of them wasn’t even small-l liberal on an issue as basic as LGBT rights.

There is no proposition of importance to which the Lib Dems adhere that is not held by the majority of the Labour right, leaving them with a distinct lack of unique selling point in the current political marketplace.

Underlying much of the enthusiasm for a ‘progressive alliance’ in some quarters is precisely the recognition of this congruence of content-lite vision. The quest for alliance with the former allies of David Cameron encapsulates the contradictions of the perspective.

The Strange Death of Liberal England came about in the wake of the break-up of a coalition with the Tories. Davey’s newfound enthusiasm for dissing Boris in similar circumstances strikes me as unlikely to secure its strange rebirth in commuterland.

After all, it’s all very well for the Lib Dems to consign the coalition era to the memory hole. But you’d have to be pretty gullible not to remember it.

David Osland is a member of Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time leftwing journalist and author. Follow him on Twitter at @David__Osland

Image: Ed Davey. Author: Keith Edkins, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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