Paddy Ashdown once joked that he was the only leader of a major party to have presided over an opinion poll rating represented by an asterisk, denoting that no discernible support could be found anywhere in the land. While he was granting himself poetic licence in the telling of that anecdote – it was an occasional foible of one polling company only to list the Tory and Labour scores on the front page of its survey results – it was indeed the case that Lib Dem poll ratings of five per cent or less peppered the early stages of his leadership.
This week an opinion poll by Savanta ComRes recorded that same risible rating of five per cent for the Lib Dems under current leader Sir Ed Davey, compared to 38 per cent for Labour and 41 per cent for the Conservatives.
At a time when the Tories have been enduring torture by Covid and Labour has also been beset by dire reputational issues that really isn’t very good. So what’s been going on? Why has a leader who bears an increasingly disconcerting physical resemblance to a Raymond Briggs cartoon character so signally failed to hit the ground running?
A trawl across the Lib Dem website and social media output yields a raft of clues. The party simply isn’t doing very much. The website itself is a visually revolting and seldom updated mix of beige and amber. A press release from 31 October was this week still being flagged up as 'breaking news'.
Almost every utterance from Lib Dem spokespeople is a boilerplate attack on the Tories. Other than that there is a predictable smattering of leftist identity politics, with references to Black History Month here and Transgender Awareness Week there. There is not a single live political issue that the party has made its own under Davey. The most serviceable efforts have come from former leader Tim Farron talking about youth mental health and St Albans MP Daisy Cooper pushing the Government on better access for families to visit elderly people in care homes.
From Davey himself, nothing distinctively liberal has emerged in relation to the battle against Covid. There is no hint of worry about intrusion into civil liberties and no demand from ministers to explicitly rule out compulsion when the vaccines are rolled out. To call his statements on Covid vacuous and undistinguished – 'we need a real plan… we need a coherent plan' – would be an understatement. On 4 November, the eve of the second lockdown, he declared:
'If Boris Johnson had not dithered and delayed and had instead followed the scientists’ advice, this second lockdown could have been shorter and less damaging.'
The trouble with this is that it is, almost to the word, Keir Starmer’s line. In fact – and this is where I think we get close to the truth about what’s really going on – everything the Lib Dems have said about anything under Davey is Sir Keir Starmer’s line. From Priti Patel’s alleged bullying to the need to protect European defence cooperation, from Boris Johnson’s green agenda ('not ambitious enough') to foreign aid spending, the Lib Dems have become Labour’s little echo.
Where previous Lib Dem leaders have agonised about whether to be equidistant between the Tories and Labour and have sometimes nudged a bit closer to the latter, Sir Ed has opted for a strategy of no distance whatever between himself and fellow knight of the realm Sir Keir. Of Davey the Orange Booker, who once boasted about being a strong philosophical liberal who believed that 'socialism has failed…even social democracy is not very convincing', there is no sign.
The real tell-tale sign is this: despite looking hard, I have been unable to find an instance of the Lib Dems under Davey condemning or even criticising Labour for anything at all in an official party communication. Not even when Starmer’s party was being flayed over anti-Semitism after the Equality and Human Rights Commission report came out at the end of October. Nor even during the messy subsequent hokey-cokey about Jeremy Corbyn’s status as a Labour MP.
The sparing of such sitting ducks surely cannot just be down to laziness, and as such at least hints that a deliberate strategy is in play, even if an inert one. Unless he really is just heroically useless, this is what I surmise the Davey plan to be:
One: Create as much policy and 'values' overlap as possible with Labour.
Two: Enter into private discussions with Starmer’s inner-circle about an electoral pact for the 2024 election that will give sitting Lib Dems a clear run in the seats they hold, and perhaps their top 30 or so Tory-held targets.
Three: explore during these talks (which will no doubt be kept just as secret as were the talks between Ashdown and Tony Blair before the 1997 election) the idea of a full-scale merger between Labour and the Lib Dems.
It was Tony Blair’s landslide victory which scuppered the plan first time round – he simply couldn’t justify bringing in the Lib Dems to Labour tribalists such as John Prescott. But there is no sign whatever of Starmer pulling off such a win in the current political cycle so he can be assumed to be very much in the marketplace for a 'progressive alliance'.
The danger for Davey is that by depriving his own party of any distinctive definition in the eyes of the public he may actually see its registered opinion poll support wither away to nothing, denying it leverage and even relevance in Labour’s eyes. Or to put it in Raymond Briggs cartoon terms: Snowman turns into pool of water.