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Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey will use his conference speech on Sunday to position the party as an unambiguously anti-Tory force, vowing that he would never help to put Boris Johnson back into Downing Street.
Davey claims his party poses a “big threat” to the prime minister, particularly in southern so-called “blue wall” Conservative constituencies, following the shock Lib Dem by-election win in Chesham and Amersham, in south-east England, in June.
Under former party leader Sir Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems formed a coalition government with David Cameron’s Conservatives in 2010, but when asked if the Lib Dems would facilitate a Tory government at the next election, Davey replied: “No.” Earlier this year, he ruled out formal alliances with the left-leaning Labour and Green parties.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Davey said the Lib Dems could again become a “significant” force in British politics, building on strong local election results in “blue wall” areas in May.
“The Conservative party are the government, they are the ones taking people for granted and they are the ones we can win lots of seats off,” he said, ahead of the virtual Lib Dem party conference starting on Friday.
“We can take a lot of seats from the Tories in the next election and we are a big threat to the Tories in their heartland.”
Traditionally the Lib Dems have sought to be equidistant between the Conservatives and the opposition Labour party. But Davey, a former energy and climate change secretary in the Cameron coalition, wants to change that.
His speech is expected to refer to former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown’s 1992 declaration in the Somerset town of Chard, when he opened the door to co-operation with Labour to beat John Major’s Conservatives.
Davey argued that during the beginning of the pandemic it was only natural for the public to rally behind the prime minister, but cracks in Conservative support were now beginning to show.
“I was genuinely staggered on the doorsteps by how many people said that they won’t vote Conservative until Johnson goes,” he said, reflecting on the party’s shock Chesham and Amersham by-election win.
“The sorts of liberal Conservatives we were talking to were unhappy about the foreign aid cuts, they don’t think he’s [Johnson] handled the pandemic well and were not impressed by his style of government,” he added. “They don’t think he is a decent man, they think he is a populist who plays to the mob.”
He said the party’s focus was on regaining public support. The Lib Dems currently hold 12 seats at Westminster; the Conservatives finished second in 10 of them and the Scottish National party second in the other two.
With both Labour and the Conservatives due to hold in-person conferences in the coming weeks, Davey defended the decision to hold a virtual gathering, arguing that planning for the event was done well in advance before it became apparent what the coronavirus situation would be.
He added that the Lib Dems had opted for a “sensible” hybrid approach, with the majority of proceedings expected to take place online except for the leader’s speech, which will be held in person on Sunday.
The Lib Dem leader, who in his first party conference speech last September pledged to become the voice for carers, argued that social care had now moved up the political agenda.
Davey said that his experiences as a carer, first for his mother and then for his own children, sparked his interest in this area, adding that he had championed the case for carers within parliament and remained in constant dialogue with organisations within the sector.
Commenting on the government’s recent proposals to fund adult social care with an increase in national insurance, he said: “Speaking just as a carer, I was disappointed and pretty angry by their failure to come up with a package and I was pretty angry about the unfair way they wanted to raise money.”
Davey also said that the Lib Dems could target business supporters, claiming Johnson’s attitude to issues including Brexit and higher corporate taxes presented an opportunity for the party.
The party’s business and climate change agendas would be closely linked, he added, arguing that there needed to be greater transparency across society in regards to how net zero targets will be achieved by 2050.
“Real action on climate change — we can talk about hydrogen, we could talk about offshore wind farms and all that sort of stuff — but the catalyst is finance,” he said.
The Lib Dems, who have previously campaigned for a second Brexit referendum, retain their support for Britain returning to the EU “in the long term” and Davey said the party would continue to “lead the pro-European argument”.
But he suggested he did not want to get bogged down in re-litigating the 2016 vote. He said the party would make the European case “by talking about a liberal future and what that means, we talk about issues that people care about the most”.