Ed Davey, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, has given his keynote speech at the party’s annual conference, pledging to smash down the Tories’ ‘blue wall’.
Encouraged by his party’s unexpected victory in the Chesham and Amersham by-election in June, he criticised what he called the government’s incompetence and lack of shame and decency and made his pitch to disgruntled Tory voters.
But what are the ideas and policies with which the Liberal Democrats hope to woo those disaffected Tory voters?
Matt Frei spoke to Ed Davey after his party conference speech, asking what makes him so confident he can take more Tory constituencies?
ED: Because we talked to so many people in Chesham and Amersham, I think we really felt the discontent of many formerly Tory voters. Many traditional Tory voters are clearly very unhappy with Boris Johnson. They feel the Conservatives have taken them for granted, whether it’s on education and schools, whether on small businesses, whether it’s on care and social care. And those are the issues that I’m determined Liberal Democrats can champion their concerns on. And so we put forward in my speech a real vision of how we can empower parents with catch-up vouchers on Covid, where we can help carers and the people cared for by giving them more control, and where we can support small businesses in particular so we can get our economy going again. And I think this package of measures is actually quite attractive to many people across the country, but particularly to those Tory voters who are fed up with Boris Johnson.
MF: You pin a lot of your strategy on that particular by-election (Chesham and Amersham) in June, and it was a spectacular result. But there were some local issues there, namely HS2, which won’t be replicated in all these other constituencies in the blue wall. So what are the big ideas that will get Tory voters, disgruntled that they may be, to switch sides to your party?
ED: Well, actually, we saw huge gains across the blue wall in the local elections in counties like Wiltshire and Surrey, Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire, Cambridgeshire, and so it wasn’t just the Chesham and Amersham by-election victory. So, I think there’s an awful lot of evidence that we can make real progress against the Conservatives in their heartlands. And to be honest, the issues that I’m talking about are issues that Conservative voters have raised with Liberal Democrats. They’re fed up that the government isn’t taking the education of children seriously enough. Children have lost out on a lot of learning during Covid, and the government’s own expert recommended a massive fund to help schools and parents catch up. But the government rejected that and just spent one tenth of what their own expert recommended. So that’s one very clear example of where parents and schools are being let down by Boris Johnson.
MF: I noticed there was only one mention, astonishingly, of Brexit in your speech. Have you now embraced Brexit?
ED: No, I mean, actually, I talked a lot about the impact of Brexit, the fact that we’ve got a food crisis, there’s problems with our farms. What we’re seeing, I think across the country, is we’re seeing the damaging impact of Brexit. Yes, of Covid as well. But whether it’s the energy crisis we’re seeing today, the food crisis, the economic crisis, the government is proceeding over real serious problems in our country. And I think as people see this and hear this and experience it, with empty shelves in supermarkets, with restaurants and bars not able to open because of a lack of staff, I think more and more it will percolate through our economy and through our politics. The government has made some serious mistakes.
MF: But in one word, you don’t want to reverse it (Brexit). Yes or no?
ED: Liberal Democrats have made it clear, and it shouldn’t be a surprise to you or anyone else, as a pro-European party, in the long term we want Britain to be back at the heart of Europe. And we’ve been very clear about that. But in the short term, we need to fight the effects of this damaging Brexit deal. Liberal Democrats voted against this Brexit deal, and I think we’re being proved right to have done so.