History / Politics

2021 Politician of the Year (reincarnate)

On the face of it, other than leading what amounts to the same party, the most that Ed Davey has in common with Jo Grimond is that he favours a two-lettered abbreviation of his first name.

Grimond, who led the old Liberal party between 1956 and 1967, as well as for a brief caretaker spell in 1976, was born into wealth, attended Eton and Balliol, married into the Asquith-Bonham Carter dynasty, and represented a constituency that is the closest the UK gets to exotic, Orkney and Shetland. He might not have been quite as attention-grabbingly flamboyant as his successor Jeremy Thorpe, but he still enjoyed a certain non-conformity, insisting on his parliamentary expense form (in geographically correct style) that his nearest railway station was Bergen, and while leader presenting an ITV programme on venereal disease.

Davey, meanwhile, has a solid middle-class modern political background from his PPE degree to a spell in management consultancy. His image is as suburban as his own constituency of Kingston and Surbiton. Grimond did not come close to government but Davey spent five years as a senior member of the 2010-15 coalition, without attracting the opprobrium that attached to many of his fellow Liberal Democrat ministers (though he did lose his seat in 2015, before a 2017 comeback). A career not undistinguished but still rather under the radar. If not a Pointless Answer of 2010 cabinet ministers, pretty close.

But when Davey assumed the leadership mantle permanently in August 2020, becoming effectively the apostolic successor of Grimond, perhaps he heard echoes of the gunfire towards which wartime Major Grimond vowed to march his troops at the 1963 Liberal Assembly.

Davey took over following the 2019 election, when the attempt by Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats to put their post-coalition woes behind them by leaning into their anti-Brexit metropolitan gains ended with the party being stripped even of its Jo Swinson. Her 144-day tenure was a mere 3,489 short of her namesake Grimond’s reign.

That had started not long after the 1955 election when the Liberals, rather than experiencing the hubristic optimism of 2019, barely figured, standing only 110 candidates while the leader, Clement Davies, sat out the campaign, ill. Grimond was the only one of the six Liberal MPs returned who had been up against both Conservative (technically Unionist) and Labour opponents.  Already eclipsed by the rise of Labour, the Liberals had never really recovered from supporting a Conservative-led government in the 1930s, and had drifted through a succession of largely ineffective leaders into possible minor party status – something Davey might find familiar.

But by the time Grimond handed over to Thorpe in 1967, his party had carved out a niche that had doubled its number of MPs and saw it polling vote tallies unheard of since the leadership of David Lloyd George; in both of the following decades, in different ways, the Liberals were within sight of the electoral success of the Goat. A similar feat to Grimond’s would hardly leave Davey on the steps of Number Ten, at least not without a coalition patron ushering him in, but after the decade the party has just had, it would be a far from qualified success.

Already there are parallels. The most obvious are the clear highlights of Davey’s tenure: the by-election successes at Chesham & Amersham and North Shropshire. The ability to win by-elections out of nowhere is not a new Liberal skill, and there had been recent successes in Richmond Park and Brecon & Radnorshire. But those earlier contests had been against tarnished incumbents. The 2021 victories were proper shocks of a kind unseen for fifteen years.

Such signs of resurgence are as nothing compared to the Torrington triumph of 1958, however. Early in Grimond’s leadership, the party displayed a new-found ability to make a mark in by-elections, with promising Liberal showings in Ipswich and Gloucester in 1957. These first advances involved some canny choices of candidates, Ludovic Kennedy coming close in Rochdale the following year. But when Mark Bonham-Carter took Torrington a few weeks after Rochdale, it was the first Liberal by-election gain since 1929.

The Liberals’ 1962 victory in Orpington was even more seismic, at the time an unprecedented swing. And this was also the product of what is now being rebuilt in Davey’s Liberal Democrats.

Grimond had sought to make the Liberals a force in local government, with some success. These gains at council elections – and the activists that go with them – paid dividends in Orpington: Eric Lubbock, who had only joined the party in 1960, had won a local ward seat the following year. In 2021 in North Shropshire, a good performance in local elections, including by the eventual by-election candidate, also helped make an upset possible. Notably, both victories were against Conservative candidates hobbled from being parachuted in from outside the constituency.

Grimond had also looked to inject some professionalism into the national Liberal organisation, in terms of money and a focused determination familiar from how the Lib Dems fight winnable by-elections today. Lubbock was selected under guidance from the party’s chief whip Donald Wade, and in what became a recurring tactic of treating local votes as national events, seasoned organiser Pratap Chitnis was sent in as agent, ensuring the campaign was well underway from not long after the seat became vacant in October 1961, four months before the vote itself.

The Orpington by-election might not have propelled Grimond into Downing Street, but it confirmed that a party that had seemed perhaps terminally moribund less than a decade before was now a force to be reckoned with. A formula had been found that has injected electoral credibility into a succession of leaders since, Davey most certainly included.

But learning how to campaign is one thing; there also has to be something to campaign for. And defining what the Liberal (Democratic) party stands for is something Davey has explicitly wrestled with – just as Grimond did more than six decades earlier.

Clement Davies’s Liberal party had an emphasis on individual liberty, hardened in opposition to the post-war Labour government. Actual policies were harder to discern, however, leaving quite a blank canvas on which Grimond could paint a more sophisticated picture, a non-socialist alternative to the Conservatives based on themes like devolution from Whitehall, ideally lower taxes, pro-Europeanism, and suitably radical measures such as nuclear disarmament. The Liberals began to sound like a party interested in governing but still distinctive enough to maintain their non-conformist appeal. They also gradually dropped the local pacts with the Conservatives that had previously helped deliver most remaining Liberal MPs; they lost seats in Bolton and Huddersfield as a result, but were better placed to attract voters with priorities other than keeping Labour out.

Grimond was a keen political thinker, as late as 1983 publishing A Personal Manifesto in which he set out his suggested policies for the new Alliance with the SDP. Davey has never sought an image as an intellectual, but after his party’s electoral collapse in 2015, and his predecessors’ failures to deliver a #LibDemFightback via the effort to overturn Brexit, he too has been given an opportunity to define afresh what the party stands for.

Long before becoming leader, Davey pointed to where he would like the Lib Dems to head. Back in 2004, he was one of the Orange Book authors, albeit on the relatively uncontroversial (for that publication) topic of localism. And during the coalition years, he disdained social democracy – ‘the watered down version which Labour sort of understand depending on which day of the week it is’ – as ‘not very convincing’, and argued for privatisation, free trade and individual liberties. Judging by his recent approaches on Covid passes and immigrant detention, the latter remain key to the Davey version of Liberalism.

In positioning the Liberal Democrats as opposed to the nationalism and cynicism of Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, but happy – unlike Labour – to keep the frontiers of the state rolled back, Sir Ed is again echoing what Grimond felt was needed to restore the fortunes of the old Liberals. Davey’s project is a safe haven for liberal Conservatives – whether in Blue Wall-y Chesham or Brexit-y North Shropshire – but one sufficiently radical (or progressive, in the parlance of our times) for those hoping to turf out the Tories to lend it their votes without getting the whiff of the Cameron coalition in their nostrils.

Ed Davey, it’s fairly clear, is not Jo Grimond reincarnate. But perhaps some of the old man’s spirit has left his Orkney place of rest and changed at Bergen station for a commute to Surbiton.

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