Ed Davey’s first big end-of-conference speech as Liberal Democrats leader was 5,114 words long. But not one of them was the word Brexit, which many of his party’s members at its gathering in Bournemouth in recent days blamed for Britain’s current challenges.
The European Union return that the Lib Dems truly covet is the love that dare not speak its name.
The Liberal Democrats is the only big party in England which, on paper, is committed to a policy of rejoining the EU (the Scottish National Party also wants to roll back Brexit).
But, for now, Davey’s party is keeping quiet about it as it tries to win back Conservative-held seats in next year’s election in affluent parts of southern England, some of which voted Leave in the Brexit referendum. Best not to frighten those wavering Tory horses.
Although it was his first such speech, Davey’s set piece could also be his last big party address before Britain goes to the polls next year, which is expected to be in May or, more likely, October.
While opinion polls suggest that a majority of the British public is favourably disposed towards the possibility of an EU return, Liberal Democrat party strategists have calculated that calling for it explicitly will not yield it electoral profit in the coterie of southern seats that it is targeting. First, the party must try to significantly boost its number of MPs (currently just 11) to give it the best chance of wielding power if, say, Labour needs its help next year to govern with stability.
For now, it sees it as best only to speak about mending the “broken relationship with Europe”. Davey’s speech, which was focused mostly on healthcare, included only a tiny section about renegotiating Britain’s trading terms with the EU. But even that faint wink across the dance floor at the UK’s European ex got the largest cheer, by far, from members on the auditorium floor.
The Westminster parliament is in a four-week recess for party conference season. The Lib Dems went first this week, followed by the Conservatives in Manchester next week and then Labour in Liverpool. Finally, it will be to Aberdeen for the SNP, which will vie with the Lib Dems to be the third largest party in Westminster following the next election.
All the conferences follow a similar pattern. Delegates congregate from all over the country. Debates and motions are held over several days in a main auditorium. But the real business of the conference – the schmoozing with fellow party members and outsiders, such as business and civic interests – takes place on the fringes of the event, where the best political debates are also held in side rooms.
All the conferences end with a big gee-up speech by the leader.
Davey started the morning by leading his front bench team on a walk down a clifftop coastal path from the Highcliff Marriott hotel where, the previous night, the Lib Dems held their traditional Glee Club: an esoteric karaoke session where cheesy numbers are reworked with political lyrics.
Davey has very little profile among the wider British public. But he appears to be liked and respected among the Lib Dems’ rank and file. They will not follow him blindly, however.
This was demonstrated in a rebellion orchestrated by youth members that resulted in defeat for the leadership in a vote over a house-building target. Davey wanted to scrap the target to keep calm the wavering Tories he is wooing in the south (they already own big houses). But Lib Dems’ younger members ensured it remains party policy.
At Glee Club on Monday night, a faction of the Liberal Democrats reworked the Three Lions football song into a vow to rejoin the EU: “We’ll go back in, we’ll go back in ...” It was the youth wing again. They chastened Davey over housing. In future, it would be little surprise if they did it again on Europe if he holds his tongue too long for their liking.