The world is hanging on every word from the virtual conference of Britain’s Liberal Democrats this weekend, as no one ever said. The Lib Dems are accustomed to being mocked when they are not simply ignored, but they have needed all the resilience they can muster since their coalition with the Tories ended with a devastating cull of their parliamentary representation at the 2015 election.
They have endured two more bad general elections since. They tried a relatively fresh face as leader, Tim Farron, and flopped in 2017. Then they fielded a highly familiar face as leader, Sir Vince Cable, but he was eased into retirement before fighting an election. In 2019, Jo Swinson vaingloriously declared that she could become prime minister and cancel Brexit only to be evicted from her parliamentary seat. Under her successor, whose name is on the tip of your tongue, the party’s poll rating bobbles along at around 8%, about a third of what they had before their support was cannibalised by the coalition experience.
With just a dozen MPs, the Lib Dems have a monumental struggle to get their voices heard on the airwaves. Sir Ed Davey is entitled to put one challenge to Boris Johnson at prime minister’s questions roughly every five weeks. For every question the Lib Dem leader gets, Sir Keir Starmer gets 30 and Ian Blackford, the leader of the Scottish National party in the Commons, receives 10.
So any positive publicity is nectar for the Lib Dems. Their singular moment in the spotlight in the past 21 months was in June when they drubbed the Tories at the Chesham and Amersham byelection and took the seat with a stonking swing of 25 points in the blue heartlands of Buckinghamshire.
The Lib Dems could be assisted by the reshuffle. Johnson has populated the cabinet with abrasively populist personalities
That byelection has had three important consequences. It gave a big morale boost to a party in desperate need of one. It also demonstrated that a vote for them will not always be a wasted vote; it can have a national impact with significant fallout. Boris Johnson used his reshuffle to send Michael Gove to try to fix the mess the Tories have got into over housebuilding. Mr Gove’s first act in his new role has been to freeze changes to the planning regime. That can be traced straight back to the angst among Tory MPs triggered by the Lib Dem victory in the Chilterns.
The byelection win had one further effect. It prompted Sir Ed to clarify his electoral ambitions and decide where to concentrate his party’s crimped resources. He has chosen to stake his chips on trying to make gains in the blue wall of Tory constituencies, mostly to be found in southern England, where the Lib Dems are the primary challenger. One senior Lib Dem remarks: “You don’t have to be Einstein to work out who the enemy is.” Of the 91 seats where the Lib Dems are second, 80 are held by Conservative MPs.
Drawing on the experience of Chesham and Amersham, the party’s strategists think they have identified the types of voter who are biddable away from the Conservatives to the Lib Dems. First, there are those liberal, tolerant, internationalist-minded Tories who largely supported Remain. These voters recoil at the bombastic and nationalistic rhetoric of the Johnson government, they shudder at cuts to the international aid budget and they shiver when Priti Patel suggests she’ll use warships to force fragile rafts and dinghies brimming with refugees back to France. Another, often overlapping group, are One Nation Conservatives who fear that the Johnson government is tearing apart the UK and dislike the government’s priorities. The Lib Dems have just launched a campaign pointing out that NHS workers face a cut to their incomes of nearly £1,000 because of the hike in national insurance and the cut to universal credit.
They also think they can find support from previous Tory voters who are repelled by the prime minister’s character. The Johnson shtick plays well with some, but not with those who mind about his lies, don’t think he’s decent and are appalled by the sleazy aura around his premiership. One Lib Dem who knocked on many doors during the Chesham and Amersham contest says she kept coming across this type of ex-Tory who would say things like: “I can’t bear voting for that overgrown schoolboy.”
The Lib Dem strategy could be assisted by the reshuffle. While Mr Johnson weeded out some of the most egregious duds in the government, he also populated the cabinet with more abrasively populist personalities. Liz Truss is top of the pops with Tory activists who delight in her ideological fervour and manic boosterism. They will celebrate her elevation to the Foreign Office. Her brand of zealotry and relentless self-promotion is less appealing to more centrist voters. Nadine Dorries, a shock appointment as culture secretary, is a ferocious culture warrior. She has a back catalogue of incendiary remarks almost as extensive as the prime minister’s own. She has lambasted the BBC as “a biased leftwing organisation” and called for the abolition of the licence fee. That will appeal to similarly frothy rightwingers who are convinced that Broadcasting House is a nest of wokeish Trots. Strident BBC-bashing is less appealing to the gentler species of Tory who enjoys the likes of The Archers and Antiques Roadshow and puts more trust in the BBC’s news than the shrieking version served up by the rightwing tabloids.
In his quest to woo centrist voters, something else offers encouragement to Sir Ed. That is his fellow knight, Sir Keir Starmer. At the last election, Jeremy Corbyn was as lethal to the Lib Dems as he was to his own party because he scared swing voters into the arms of the Tories. As one Lib Dem strategist puts it: “Life is incredibly more difficult for us when there is a Labour leader who frightens moderate voters because they think voting for us risks letting in someone who will be catastrophic for them.” The Lib Dems could work with Sir Keir in a way they never could with Labour’s previous management.
Sir Ed, who sat in the coalition cabinet, says his party is now resolutely “anti-Tory”. Yet he is highly wary of the notion that all the anti-Tory parties should formally join forces in the name of a “progressive alliance”. The Labour leadership is similarly sceptical. Electoral pacts, in which one party stands down in some places in exchange for the other not competing elsewhere, are fiendishly difficult to negotiate. Politicians do not own voters. They aren’t inanimate objects to be shoved behind one party or another on instruction from above.
The late Sir Paddy did not just attack the Tories and he did not try to be a pale version of Labour
What we are likelier to see is more subtle forms of collaboration. Labour did not put much energy into the contest for Chesham and Amersham, which helped the Lib Dems present themselves as the only choice for voters who wanted to punish the Conservatives. At the Batley and Spen byelection in July, the quiet Lib Dem effort concentrated on peeling away moderate Tories, which may have helped Labour to its narrow victory in the Yorkshire seat.
The best example of Labour and the Lib Dems prospering from an informal pact was the 1997 election. In Paddy Ashdown for the Lib Dems and Tony Blair for Labour, both parties had popular leaders with a lot of compatible views and a mutual ambition to get rid of a Conservative government. Neither stood down candidates, but they laid off each other and focused the energies of their respective parties where they were best placed to unseat Tories. The Lib Dems more than doubled their number of MPs to 46 and Labour got an enormous 418.
There’s another lesson from that era for the Lib Dems. The late Sir Paddy did not just attack the Tories and he did not try to be a pale version of Labour. He developed a flair for taking distinctive positions and finding signature policies that persuaded voters it was worthwhile to pay some attention to the Lib Dems. Sir Ed has found it even harder to cut through to the country than Sir Keir. Colleagues concede that their leader is an unknown to the great majority of the public. One veteran Lib Dem, who knows how tough the job is from personal experience, says that Sir Ed’s stiffest challenge is to find opportunities “to put himself at the heart of the national conversation”. He makes his conference speech today. It will be a test of whether he has things to say and ways of saying them that will get himself and his party noticed. Byelections are too unpredictable in their frequency and type to be the sole source of succour for the Lib Dems. They are in pressing need of finding other means to get in the spotlight.
• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer