Liberal Democrat leadership candidate Sir Ed Davey tells TIM WALKER how the party now leads the opposition to Brexit.
As secretary of state for energy and climate change and a member of the privy council during the coalition years, Sir Ed Davey sat on the national security council. “We met each week and the heads of MI5, MI6, GCHQ and the chief of the defence staff attended, and all I can say that is when I began to seriously worry about Russia,” he tells me, in his quiet, understated way.
“I attended G7 energy minister meetings as well as the EU ministerial gatherings, following the Russian aggression in the Crimea and Ukraine, and it became obvious to me that, for Putin and his kleptocrats, dividing Europe was an objective, and there was lot for Russia to gain from unleashing the forces of populism both here and abroad.”
As prime minister, David Cameron chaired the meetings and Davey was bemused to see how convivial the relationship had been between the Russians and the Tories before the annexation of the Crimea in the spring of 2014. “In those early days, Cameron had wanted ROSATOM – the Russian state nuclear energy corporation – to be allowed access to the UK domestic nuclear power market, after he’d had a chat with his old mate Vlad. As secretary of state, I emphatically did not, and I made sure it did not happen.
“Later, a company invested in the energy sector that was set up by a Russian business magnate with close links to the Kremlin, made a determined attempt to buy oil and gas assets in the North Sea. I recognised this was undesirable, not least because it would have put production at risk after the US sanctions imposed post-Crimea. I used powers no secretary of state had ever used before to see them off – and let’s just say I didn’t always feel I had what I would have considered to be a normal level of support from other parts of the government.”
The affable 53-year-old MP is talking to me in his modest Westminster office where a few pictures of his wife Emily and their children adorn the walls. It’s a place of frenetic activity as he’s contesting the leadership of the resurgent Liberal Democrats against Jo Swinson, the 39-year-old MP for East Dunbartonshire.
It’s hard not to think that, if this were any other party, Davey’s experience and grasp of a range of complex issues would make him a shoo-in, but, his party being the Lib Dems, I suggest he has an obvious disadvantage.
“If you mean that some members might vote for Jo only because she is a woman, then I am sure that would annoy her more than anyone. These are exceptionally challenging times and we both want the Lib Dems to get the best leader it can. I ask members to look at our records and what we propose to do. I have fought all my life for real gender equality and diversity and be in no doubt that will continue to be a priority if I am elected leader of the party.”
Friends of mine on both the Tory and Labour benches used to tell me there was no Lib Dem that seemed quite as confident wielding power during the coalition years as Davey and it’s telling how, when I inquire about, for instance, the horror of leaving the EU on WTO terms, he starts to talk about Pascal Lamy, the organisation’s director general during those years, who he met during a WTO ministerial round in Geneva. Davey seems to know absolutely everyone.
For all his contacts, Davey is under no illusion about the magnitude of the task ahead for the next leader of his party. “The EU elections show that the tectonic plates have shifted and we are now the real opposition, leading the ‘Stop Brexit’ campaign. Before the year is out, it will almost certainly be necessary to negotiate with Tory and Labour MPs – possibly in large numbers – about the terms on which they join us. Clearly things will come to a head very soon for a lot of them with Brexit.
“I will be happy to welcome all those MPs who are willing to sign up to our liberal values, but they will have to accept that, while anything will be possible for them in our party, it will remain our party.
“This leadership election will decide the leader we will have for the foreseeable future, and I see no reason to change our name, nor form any strategic pacts with other Remain-supporting parties, as we have only got to where we are now by being who we are and true to what we believe in.”
With the iniquities of the first-past-the-post voting system, he says he sees no merit in doing any kind of deal with the Greens. “I have great admiration for Caroline Lucas and I am happy to work with her on issues such as the People’s Vote, but the Greens are weak in Westminster and their position on Brexit is not entirely solid even now, with Baroness Jenny Jones, their spokesperson in the Lords, vociferously in favour of leaving. Historically, the Greens have been very hostile to the EU.
“I was an environmentalist before I went into politics and I would have joined the Greens if I hadn’t seen from the start that their environmental policies were never going to work. They take the same view as Corbyn, that industries need to be taken back into state control, whereas the way to effect real change is to make the markets our servants.
“As secretary of state, I managed to quadruple our use of renewable energy, make Britain the leader in offshore wind and dramatically cut the cost of renewable power through new competitive auctions, so green power is now more competitive than fossil fuels. The best way forward has to be carbon-free capitalism.”
Davey was riled when he appeared on Newsnight last week with endless questions about a possible pact with Labour because he felt it showed the BBC had failed to grasp the new political realities, after the Lib Dems’ massive gains in the EU elections.
“I quote to them the words of the late Freddie Mercury: ‘we are the champions’. Given the exasperation people now feel about Brexit, I see our position becoming stronger and stronger. I genuinely don’t see that a coalition will be necessary for us to achieve power. There is no way, in any case, we could come to any kind of agreement with Labour, given Corbyn’s position not just on Brexit but also his economic policies, let alone a more right- wing Tory party, in its current Brexit state.”
Davey is pushing the BBC to give his party coverage commensurate with its popularity and he wants them to broadcast a leaders’ debate between himself and Swinson.
Davey has a wealth of ideas about what to do to tackle the inequalities that caused Brexit to happen in the first place, but his immediate priority as leader of his party would of course be to stop a disastrous no-deal in parliament, as Labour has been attempting this week.
“I am looking closely at the idea of using what is called a humble address to the Queen – a parliamentary procedure by which the Commons petitions the monarch, and by extension the government, to, in this case, require the prime minister to revoke Article 50.
“That would stymie their appalling plan to push through no-deal by proroguing parliament which would turn us into a tinpot dictatorship.”
Davey adds: “What our party and our country needs now is a skilled negotiator and strategist who can above all things lead.
“That individual needs to get the bigger picture, to be able to bring a wide range of people together and be able to work with them and to make sure from the outset our party is accorded the respect due to it as the party of opposition – and that includes the BBC in terms of airtime.
Above all things, he or she needs to recognise that it is the heart and soul of this country that is now at stake.”
– NEXT WEEK: Tim Walker meets Jo Swinson, the other candidate in the Lib Dem leadership race