When Boris Johnson sought to extend the government’s emergency powers for another six months last week, he faced little opposition in the Commons. Rather than fight for parliament’s right to scrutinise the government, Keir Starmer told Labour MPs to vote with the Tories. There was only one party of opposition: the Liberal Democrats. Ed Davey, the party leader, complained in parliament about the ‘draconian’ powers taken by the government, and whipped his MPs to vote against them.
The 11 Lib Dem MPs are a much-depleted force from the 57-strong party that propped up David Cameron in the coalition years. After they have spent years struggling to find ways to be heard, could a rediscovery of liberalism do the trick?
Political interviews cannot take place in parliament, so I met Davey over Zoom. This is an example, he says, of the wider problem. ‘The fact that we have had to have a virtual parliament — because of Covid — has handed more power to the government,’ he says. ‘People aren’t having those informal discussions or informal groupings. Politics works on a people level. If you’re not there in the tea rooms, in the lobbies, bumping into people, to be honest you can’t plot! You can’t get that cross-party fertilisation. That gives more power to the executive.’
Johnson once made similar arguments, railing against identity cards. Now he’s suggesting immunity certificates could be needed to go to the pub. ‘I worry this is part of a trend,’ says Davey. ‘We are seeing, I think, some creeping authoritarianism from them.’ He says the current police bill, which allows protests to be banned if they are ‘causing public nuisance’, is another example of Tory overreach.
‘I can’t believe that a Conservative government is saying that the police can stop a protest just because they think it’s a bit noisy. Had that been happening in some other countries, where democracy is less strong, the Foreign Secretary would have been bringing out a press release or talking to the ambassador.’ We can see illiberal measures creeping into a whole range of things, he says, including plans to demand photo ID for voting, which could hit the marginalised and vulnerable. ‘I see no real justification for that. It seems authoritarian to me.’
Davey insists his conversion to freedom fighter is sincere and that his concern has grown during the pandemic. As the vaccination programme passes the 30 million mark this week, he questions the justifications now being used by the government to hold on to control. ‘The nearer we get to the completion of the vaccine rollout, you would have thought we would have been restoring freedoms,’ he says. ‘But there’s no roadmap to the restoration of civil liberties.’
The Lib Dems never quite recovered from coalition with the Tories. Their share of the vote — 20 per cent in 2010 — sunk to 11 per cent at the last election and polls at just 6 per cent now. Most recently they were known for opposing Brexit, but now that the UK has left the EU, Davey has said the Lib Dems won’t become a rejoin party. Since he became leader last year, he hasn’t made much of a splash and the party is now in danger of being overtaken by the Greens. When asked about the May local elections, Davey makes no pretence of optimism. ‘I’m not going to lie,’ he says. ‘I don’t think it’s going to be easy, because we’ve got a lot of trends against us. We have got to show that our values speak to people across the UK in a way that I think we didn’t do in the last few elections.’
His liberal values, he says, are ‘one of the reasons why our party has endured for so many centuries’. Just how much the Lib Dems (created in 1988 after the Liberals merged with the SDP) have in common with the old Liberal party is debatable. As is their current definition of liberalism, which Davey says ‘won’t be everyone’s version of liberalism’. They still want to categorise misogyny as a ‘hate crime,’ for example. And for all Davey’s fire and fury about lockdown powers, there is barely a word against them on its website, and he has no specifics on a timeline for a return to normal. Instead he would seek ‘some advice from scientists and experts’ on what one can get away with on social distancing.
But he is clearer on the measures his party will oppose. First on the list is the idea of a vaccine passport. ‘We’re against it. It is deeply illiberal and wrong,’ he says, ‘Even if they just allowed a pub landlord to do it — with the power to exclude — that raises serious questions. What happens if you have been advised not to have the vaccine? What about children? There are a whole set of practical reasons why, when you take these illiberal measures, they restrict some people’s freedoms. I just don’t think that’s where we should be going.’
His next target is the ban on foreign travel. The government is considering extending the current restrictions, apart from in extenuating circumstances, well beyond May. ‘Exit visas are deeply troubling,’ he says. ‘What about if your loved ones live abroad — are we really saying that you can’t go and see your loved one?’ He describes quarantine on return as ‘reasonable’.
As long as Labour keeps supporting the Tories on Covid, such interventions will prove fruitless. Nevertheless, Davey will continue focusing on the argument. ‘I joined the party when we were at 4 per cent in the opinion polls in 1989 — it wasn’t a career move. I joined it because I wanted to join a party that cleaved to those liberal values as strongly as we have, even in those bad times when we weren’t popular. That’s going to be our enduring strength.’