The Lib Dems have stopped talking about Brexit – but will anyone notice?

By Lizzy Tomlin, Senior Account Manager, Cicero/AMO

I usually write a blog after Lib Dem Conference on a train home from whichever seaside town it was held in, tired and emotional after three days of ‘networking’, yet buoyed by a Leader’s speech I’d just enjoyed surrounded by a nice bubble of liberal (and often quirky) supporters.

This year is remarkably different and, listening online outside of this bubble, I don’t have any Lib Dem-gold-tinted glasses on. I also note that it will be the third different Leader delivering the end of Conference speech in three years, so forgive me if I’m slightly pessimistic this year.

However, listening to Leader Ed Davey’s speech and seeing the 19 Conference Motions passed reminded me that Lib Dem Conference is important both for the Party machine and its membership’s morale, as they have had to endure a bruising five years.

I also admire Ed Davey. He has wanted the leadership for so long and although to many it is seen as a poisoned chalice – particularly as the UK leaves the EU – he seems to revel in the challenge. He’s unafraid to criticise the Prime Minister, his adviser Dominic Cummings and the whole Government machine, but has learnt to dial down his passion against the Conservatives that had previously boiled over slightly (we don’t talk about his previous desire to “decapitate that blond head” of Boris Johnson…).

The one refreshing shift Davey has introduced since becoming Leader is to put the Party in the news talking about something that isn’t Brexit. In his Conference speech, Brexit was mentioned once in passing as a “challenge” alongside climate change and COVID-19. He recognised that to change the country’s future, the Lib Dems “have to change our Party”. Without mentioning Brexit, he recognised a fundamental shift is required to achieve success, including having more black members, Councillors and MPs.

Yet social care was the issue Davey chose to put the Lib Dems in the headlines for instead of Brexit. His highly emotional speech, speaking from his experience as a carer, reinforced the Party’s promise to be the “voice of the 9 million carers in our country”. The Times journalist Matt Chorley questioned why the Lib Dems didn’t push their policy to introduce a penny on income tax for the NHS, which I agree would have been an eye catching and newsworthy story, but the Lib Dems need to play it safe for a while. Rebuilding the Party requires small steps and their headline policy needed to come from a position of strength that couldn’t be torn apart immediately. It’s also clever as the major political parties are shying away from the social care debate, and its why he and Lib Dem Health and Care Spokesperson Munira Wilson invited the Government, the Labour Party, and leading care organisations to begin talks “in earnest” on the issue.  

So, who needs Lib Dem-gold-tinted glasses after all? Well, the difference is that I actively listened to the speech and actively followed Lib Dem Conference. Very few of my peers and colleagues would have done the same and this remains the Lib Dems’ challenge. Even if they begin to build a Party that appeals to the centre-ground and isn’t focused on re-joining the EU, not many will hear about it. Davey has four years to change the Party and, for now, he’s making small progress but only time will tell.

Pictured: Lizzy Tomlin chairs a Cicero/AMO event with Ed Davey MP, hosted in November 2019.

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Lizzy Tomlin

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