Skip to main content

Will the Lib Dems "smell the coffee" under new leader Ed Davey?

27 August 2020

Chief Executive Mark Glover writes about Sir Ed Davey's victory as new Liberal Democrat leader and what it means for the party.

It was about 30 years ago that I first met (now Sir) Ed Davey. He was a senior researcher in the House of Commons, covering the economics brief for the Party’s spokesperson Alan Beith, whilst I was the National Chairperson of the Student Liberal Democrats. 

Those were the heady days of optimism within the Lib Dems, led by Paddy Ashdown and fuelled by by-election wins in Eastbourne, Ribble Valley and Kincardine and Deeside. Ed’s career trajectory was clearly mapped out, even then. He was approachable and a straight talker, who over time developed an improved public-speaking style. He is also less constrained by the typical tribal politics than one would expect (evident later by his role in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government).

A member of the ‘Orange Book’ (economically liberal) wing of the Liberal Democrats, he is seen as someone that all wings of the party can work with. He was certainly the safer pair of hands for members given his extensive experience within the party, and politics more generally, than the relatively new MP Layla Moran, who was perhaps more of the activists’ choice. In a period where the Lib Dems need stability and solid growth, Davey may well prove to be the right person for the job.

He joined the Commons in 1997 as the MP for Kingston and Surbiton and held the seat for 18 years. In 2015, he was one of the Lib Dem MPs made to pay for the party’s – and indeed his own – time in Coalition with the Conservative Government, when he was defeated by Conservative James Berry. Showing his determination and commitment to the cause, Davey regained the seat for the Liberal Democrats at the snap election of 2017, with a majority of 4,124, increasing this to a more comfortable figure of 10,489 in 2019.

During his time in the Commons, Davey has covered a variety of spokesperson portfolios, including as a Lib Dem Whip, Business, Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Trade, Education and the Treasury. Following the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition Agreement in 2010, he entered government Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and held responsibilities for trade as a Minister for Trade Policy. After the resignation of Chris Huhne, in February 2012, Davey was appointed Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, and appointed to the Privy Council.

It is for his role as Energy Secretary that Davey is best known, where he was a champion of renewable energy. He came up against fierce opposition from Conservative backbenches over the creation of on-shore windfarms in England and Wales, and pursued a number of policies to reduce the UK’s dependency on fossil fuels. In simple policy terms, it could be argued that he has been one of the biggest influencers on enacted government policy in the last few decades.

Going forward, we can expect Davey to work hard to strengthen Liberal Democrat numbers in local government in order to build a base to re-energise the party going forward. He will also seek to target maintaining and growing party representation in Scotland and Wales, before building a platform to start growing the Lib Dem Party in Westminster again.

His first step is to deal with the party’s credibility problems and create reasons for voting Lib Dem beyond being a protest vote. This will almost certainly be focused around a strong environmental offer, a commitment to free trade, more cooperation with our European colleagues and a sensible ‘green’ pro-business, pro employment agenda. He is also likely to champion better funding of local authorities, electoral reform and devolution of power. Some would say typical Lib Dem policies, but ones that will perhaps have more resonance with the impending crisis in local government funding across the UK and concerns with a Dominic Cummings-led centralisation of power within No 10.

These will be an interesting few years, but with the failure of his three predecessors to really make much of an impact on the voters’ imagination, he may well succeed in the face of a low levels of expectation for a Lib Dem leader post 2010.