TIM WALKER talks to Lib Dem acting leader Ed Davey about the role of politics during the pandemic, and what Keir Starmer’s success could do for his own party’s prospects.
Sir Ed Davey is working from home in his south London constituency, but, while his daily commute from his bed to his desk is shorter, the hours are longer than ever.
In the first few weeks of lockdown, his priority was repatriating over 100 constituents who were stranded abroad in far-flung countries. Now he’s doing what he can for distressed local businesses, ensuring local elderly and vulnerable people are fed, and then there are all of the responsibilities that come with being his party’s acting parliamentary leader.
He is also, with his wife Emily, sharing childminding duties and it’s up to him to supervise music practice for their 12-year-old son John, who is severely disabled.
‘I recognise I’m lucky still to be drawing a salary when so many people aren’t,’ says Davey, the 54-year-old MP for Kingston and Surbiton, as a melody begins to take shape in the background. ‘I’ve a few members of staff helping me, but of course they are all having to work from home and two have children of their own, so I can’t very well ask anyone to take the phone when it starts to ring. Emily is a huge help to me, but she is also a local councillor so she has her own responsibilities, too.’
After Jo Swinson lost her seat in East Dunbartonshire in the general election, the Lib Dem constitution dictated that Davey, as the party’s deputy leader, should take over, along with its president Sal Brinton (subsequently replaced by Mark Pack), until a replacement can be chosen.
It was the decision of the party’s governing federal board to put off the vote for a new leader until this time next year on the basis that an election would distract from the current crisis.
The length of the delay clearly frustrates Davey and he says he hopes very much that the decision can be reconsidered so that the party can have in place a duly-elected leader before Christmas.
In the meantime, Davey is not just marking time. He was the first to call for the ‘virtual’ recall of parliament, and, once the crisis is over, an independent public inquiry into how the government responded to it.
His has since been an occasionally critical – but always constructive and informed – voice within the brave new world of online democracy. He has spoken of how the government must stop bailing out companies domiciled overseas for tax purposes, pushed for measures to help the NHS and care home workers, and asked that a select committee be set up – he graciously suggested that it be chaired by the leader of the opposition – to scrutinise the government’s actions on the coronavirus.
He wants, too, an amendment to the Brexit legislation to allow for the maximum possible two-year extension period to be requested.
‘Keir Starmer has taken up the idea of the select committee, and I hope, soon, he will come to support pausing the Brexit process, but on that we face an uphill struggle.
‘Michael Gove has already indicated that it will go ahead no matter what. The Lib Dems are not denying the democratic mandate the government has to deliver Brexit, but we’re just saying that in all the circumstances it would make a lot more sense to put it on hold until we’re over this current crisis and can discuss it with the EU in a more considered and focused way.
‘Sadly, there are people within the Conservative Party who knew all along how damaging Brexit would be to our economy and way of life, and, somewhat perversely, they see the aftermath of the crisis we’re in now as the best possible time to implement a no-deal. They know it will give cover for the damage their policy was always bound to inflict.’
So far as the coronavirus is concerned, Davey feels there is nothing to be gained by being ‘finger-pointingly party political’, and says that, while there are legitimate questions that need to be asked about, for instance, whether the government should have locked the country down earlier, they should be kept for the public inquiry.
‘Of course the Tories cannot be blamed for the coronavirus, but there are so many questions that will need to be answered, such as why, after the trial-run we had for a pandemic – codenamed Cygnus – four years ago, we hadn’t made the recommended provision for ventilators, PPE and critical care beds. We will have to ask also why big events such as Cheltenham [Festival] were allowed to take place.
‘The statistics would appear to show that our number of fatalities is greater than any other developed country, except for the United States, but again we will need to examine them with care after this is over and make sure we are looking at them according to the same measurements as other countries.
‘The key thing we need to look at, I am told, is ‘excess deaths, age-adjusted’, which will give us a clearer picture of how the coronavirus has increased mortality rates.’
There are those who say that in a time of national crisis everyone, irrespective of traditional party allegiances, should get behind the government, but Davey says the opposition parties have a constitutional duty to hold the government to account at all times, and it’s never more important to do that when lives are at stake.
He is determined to ensure that the government has thought through the way it plans to relax lockdown and is transparent about its reasoning.
‘Much is being made of the tension between the economy and a prolonged lockdown, but it benefits no one if it’s lifted early or without proper thought as the second wave could be worse that the first.
‘It’s welcome that testing is now finally taking place on a much larger scale, but I have concerns about whether the preparations are now as advanced as they should be for tracing people, post lockdown, who have been in contact with those who are positive.
‘In the coalition government, I sat round the table at National Security Council meetings and I know how complicated decisions of this kind can be, but it seems to me the best way forward is for government to be a lot clearer about the science and the options and to treat people like adults.
‘I’d like to know, for instance, how susceptible children are to the coronavirus and how infectious they may be. The decision on when to reopen schools will obviously turn on that.’
As his party’s acting leader, Davey has not sought to take advantage of his position by declaring his candidacy to succeed Swinson, but there seems little doubt that, when the moment comes, he will be fighting Layla Moran and Wera Hobhouse for the leadership.
Davey was defeated by Swinson in last year’s contest, but subsequently offered her his unqualified support. He has since refrained from uttering a word of criticism of the very personalised way she had set about campaigning in the election in a bus emblazoned with the words ‘Jo Swinson’s Lib Dems’.
He was rumoured not to have been convinced by her initial policy of revoking Brexit, but defends her decision to have supported, along with Jeremy Corbyn, the original vote for a general election.
‘I think there would have had to have been a general election before too long. The ideal would of course to have had a People’s Vote first, but there was no guarantee either that we’d ever have got that or we’d have won it. You then get into the undesirable alternatives of an election after Brexit, with or without a deal.’
Lockdown could well mean the Lib Dems have to have an online leadership contest, but that would almost certainly favour Davey as it would make it more of a battle of thoughts and ideas than the optics. His sex almost certainly stood against him in the contest against Swinson, when there was a huge imperative within his party to finally have a woman leading the party.
During the general election, Swinson was noticeably defensive about her party’s period in coalition with David Cameron’s Tories – even though she had herself served in ministerial positions – but Davey, for his part, says the party has every right to take pride in those years. ‘Sure, we had to make some undesirable compromises, but we also achieved a great deal, not least quadrupling our reliance on renewable energy, making same sex marriage lawful, getting the lowest earners out of tax and introducing the pupil premium policy to help the most disadvantaged youngsters.’
As the fourth party after the election, the Lib Dems are now inevitably struggling for airtime and what coverage they get in right-wing newspapers is inevitably hostile.
Much was made of a Lib Dem councillor who inadvertently tweeted a picture of himself with a plate of bacon in ‘solidarity’ with Muslims fasting for Ramadan. ‘That was misrepresented and was obviously a mistake, but it shouldn’t detract from the key liberal tenet that everyone has the right to practice their faith,’ says Davey. ‘After all the Islamophobia we have seen in our politics and in the headlines, we need to make it clear to Muslims how much we value the contribution they make to our nation’s life.
‘So many Muslims working in the NHS have made the ultimate sacrifice in the fight we are now all engaged in against the coronavirus.
‘When lives are at stake, it’s vitally important that the media reports responsibly. I’ve been concerned by the naivety of some papers in unquestioningly repeating the government lines. Still, I doubt any of our newspapers have said anything as irresponsible as the president of the United States with his ludicrous comments about ingesting disinfectant.
‘All of us with any kind of public profile at all need to consider every word we utter with care and ensure what we are saying is accurate.’
Davey was relieved that Starmer won the Labour leadership contest and reckons it will be good, too, for the Lib Dems. ‘The unique toxicity of Jeremy Corbyn meant that a great many disillusioned Tory voters were too afraid to back our party in the last election lest they inadvertently let in Labour with the extreme positions it held during his leadership.
‘It’s always disadvantaged us when Labour has had a leader that is seen as too extreme – from Michael Foot with the SDP Liberal Alliance to Neil Kinnock’s time and the infamous Sheffield rally, through to the 2015 election and the fears that Ed Miliband would end up doing a deal with the SNP. It remains to be seen how much Starmer can push back against Momentum, and clearly he has his battles on anti-Semitism, but it’s in all our interests that Labour becomes an effective party once again.’
Davey laughs self-deprecatingly when I suggest that Starmer has maybe demonstrated that safe pairs of hands are coming back into fashion among the opposition parties. ‘The country and the world that emerges from this crisis will be very different to what went before and I am determined to fight for the kind of liberal values that have always defined our country,’ he says.
‘In the last election, I think a lot of people saw us as a party that was only concerned about Brexit, which I think was unfair. What we are now living through highlights the importance of so many other policies that we’ve long been passionate about, not least great health care and the environment. We need, too, to put our young people first since the coronavirus – in addition to Brexit – will inevitably have an impact on their life chances. If we don’t care about our young, we don’t care about our future.’