Sir Ed accused the PM and his top adviser of wanting a Trump-style “perpetual war” on issues like trans rights or the singing of “Rule Britannia” at the Proms in order to distract from their failings on public services, social justice, climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.
“They want to divide and rule,” he told The Independent, in his first interview with a national newspaper since being elected leader on a permanent basis on Thursday. “I’m not going to play their silly games. I’m going to have a laser beam-like focus on the real concerns of the British people.”
Since his decisive victory over leadership challenger Layla Moran, Sir Ed has declared his intention to spend the coming months on a listening tour of the country to hear voters’ concerns in preparation for a fundamental rethink of Lib Dem policy platforms in time for the election scheduled in 2024.
In a brutal assessment of a five-year decline from being a party of government to a rump of 11 MPs bumping along in single figures in the polls, he told Lib Dems it was time to “wake up and smell the coffee” and recognise that they had turned in on themselves and lost touch with voters.
Escaping the doldrums will require focusing on the day-to-day issues of ordinary Britons, rather than the hot topics making waves in social media and the Westminster bubble, he said.
After years in which the Lib Dems have been defined by opposition to Brexit, he made clear that it also means toning down the all-consuming message on Europe to foreground policies on bread-and-butter topics like education, health and jobs which affect Remain and Leave voters alike.
But he rejected suggestions that Lib Dems should declare the EU debate over as a symbol of their determination to move on from their “Bollocks to Brexit” phase.
“I wouldn’t go that far because we’re not going to change our values,” he said.
“We’re a liberal party and that means we’re internationalists. I’m a passionate pro-European leader of a pro-European party.
“But if you go out into the country and listen to people, Europe was never number one on their agenda. What was on the agenda were things like jobs, things like education, the health service, the care system, housing. We need to engage with voters, whether they voted Remain or Brexit or whether they just wanted the whole thing over.”
Lib Dems had “played into our opponents’ hands” by allowing pro-Brexit Tories to choose the field of battle, he said.
“Particularly in 2019, when our focus was so much on Brexit, we didn’t get over the fact that we had lots of other issues we cared about,” said Sir Ed. “Our commitment to social justice, our commitment to tackling climate change, our commitment to a more caring society. I think because we focused so much on Brexit, we didn’t get those other issues across.”
Sir Ed – whose past as energy secretary in David Cameron’s coalition cabinet was identified by Ms Moran during the leadership campaign as a drag on Lib Dem fortunes – denied that his party needed a “Clause 4 Moment” like Tony Blair’s rejection of nationalisation in order to symbolise its hoped-for renewal.
“It’s not an ideological problem. I don’t think we have a values problem, as the Labour Party did at that stage, or a problem with historical baggage,” he said.
He pointed to his success in securing a commitment from Mr Johnson to an independent inquiry into the handling of Covid-19 as a sign of how Lib Dems, even with a reduced number of MPs, had been able to make headway on issues of concern to voters.
Sir Ed said his planned listening tour was inspired by a similar six-month exercise conducted by “my hero in British politics”, Paddy Ashdown, who took to the road in 1992 when the Lib Dems were at a similar low-point electorally, building a platform on issues like education and the environment which set the foundations for a gradual rise from 20 MPs to 46 in 1997 and 62 under Charles Kennedy in 2005.
“I was working with Paddy at the time and I remember it as a massive exercise where he was re-engaging with the country and trying to understand what people’s problems were, what their fears were, what their hopes were, what their dreams were,” he said.
“He did it with his own style. I have a very different style, but I love being with people, I really enjoy talking to people and I’m really quite excited about the prospect.”
Social distancing rules permitting, aides said Sir Ed will be popping up in community centres, workplaces, pubs and shopping malls all over the country for no-holds-barred discussions with voters on their frustrations about modern life and what they want from politicians – away from the cameras.
“He’ll be going to places where there are no Liberal Democrats, talking to people who don’t know who Ed Davey is,” said one party source. “That’s the point of it – to listen to people who the Lib Dems haven’t been listening to.”
When The Independent pointed out to him that it would not be difficult to find voters who do not know who he is, Sir Ed resisted the idea that he should undergo a personal rebranding to make himself known to the public.
“You don’t start by branding yourself, you start by listening to people and focusing in on their concerns,” he said. “When people do look at me, I hope they’ll see someone who is actually a bit of an ordinary bloke really, who’s got kids, who’s got family, who’s had caring responsibilities during his life. I’m not saying I’m Mr Ordinary but I’ve got issues that all parents and many people have.”
He made no secret of his distaste for Mr Johnson, often accused of putting his personal branding ahead of his policies. He has left no doubt that he sees the Lib Dems as closer to Labour under Sir Keir Starmer and is ready for cross-party work to oppose the Conservative government, though he said that any discussion of more formal cooperation was for “somewhere down the line”.
“You won’t be surprised to know I don’t have much time for Boris Johnson,” said Sir Ed. “I think he’s been an appalling prime minister.
“He often doesn’t seem to be on top of his brief. He’s very reliant on an adviser like Dominic Cummings. He’s often absent without leave. It’s almost like he’s got power and he doesn’t know what he wants to do with it. I don’t rate politicians who spend their life fighting others and dividing people.”
Sir Ed insisted that he would “never be on the back foot in defending liberal values”. And he stood firm on his support for self-identification for trans people, accusing Tories – who have floated watering down key gender recognition laws – of using this small and embattled minority as a “political football”.
“It’s the hallmark of this government,” he said. “Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings don’t care about individuals, they don’t care about human rights, all they care about is divide and rule. That’s a nasty politics and I will have nothing of it.”
He added: “What I will say about the so-called culture wars is that progressive parties need to understand that the right wing keep laying a trap for us.
“They keep trying to divide people. They keep trying to divide communities. And we should be about bringing people together.
“Cummings is the one who wants perpetual war, and he wants to create arguments that aren’t really the key ones that matter to people.
“What I’m saying to the party, to the country, is I’m not going to take that any more. I am going to have a laser beam-like focus on the concerns of the British people, not on the little silly little games that Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings play.
“Little boys go and play your little games, I’m going to focus on the concerns and fears and hopes of the British people.”
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