Ed Davey’s self-righteousness has caught up with him
The Lib Dem leader will never recover from the Post Office scandal.
Depriving a Liberal Democrat leader of the ability to act self-righteous in an election year is akin to giving Samson a buzz cut before sending him into battle against armies of Philistines.
In order to carry out their basic function as a repository for protest voters, the Lib Dems need to be led by somebody who exudes a certain performative decency that can appeal to idealists.
Nick Clegg found this out the hard way, after he betrayed a solemn promise to support the abolition of university tuition fees. As deputy prime minister, he instead voted to treble them and faced such a terrifying public backlash that he ended up leaving the country for California.
Today, the current Lib Dem leader, Sir Ed Davey, finds himself in a similar position. He has been exposed for exhibiting an almost total indifference towards the plight of the wronged subpostmasters – a cause that has shot to No1 in the public-sympathy charts thanks to last week’s ITV drama, Mr Bates vs The Post Office, starring Toby Jones.
While postal-affairs minister in the coalition government from 2010 to 2012, Davey complacently batted away warnings of the injustices that were being perpetrated, thanks to the Post Office’s faulty IT system, Horizon. He was also reluctant to even hear the case of the wronged parties in a face-to-face meeting. Davey also stands accused of failing to respond to repeated appeals for help from an embattled local subpostmaster in his constituency.
So politically hamstrung is Davey now that he failed to attend this week’s parliamentary debate on the Post Office scandal. And he wasn’t in his place for Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, either.
As the Daily Mail reminded its readers this week, since being elected as his party’s leader nearly four years ago, Davey has specialised in calling for other people in public life to resign their posts. The Mail documented 34 such calls put out from his social-media feed, ranging from Boris Johnson (multiple times) to the former Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick. Just before Christmas, Davey called for the entire board of Thames Water to go.
Yet now it is Sir Ed who finds himself cast in the role of crash-test dummy, with speculation growing that a former subpostmaster will stand against him in his Kingston seat at the General Election.
Local independent councillor Yvonne Tracey, herself a former deputy manager of a Post Office branch, told the Telegraph: ‘Come the next election, it’s incumbent on those seeking justice for our subpostmasters to stand against Ed.’
In an era when very many voters have switched off from politics, Davey has achieved the worst kind of ‘cut through’ imaginable. Back in September, he was challenged on air by the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire about public perceptions of him. When asked to describe Davey, the top-three responses from the public were ‘don’t know’, ‘no idea’ and ‘not sure’. At the time, this was seen as something of a humiliation. But these days, Sir Ed would surely give his sword arm for such an invisibility cloak. Because suddenly, nearly everyone knows at least one thing about him – namely, that when he was presented with multiple opportunities to fight for justice for a profoundly wronged group of decent citizens, he flunked it again and again, leaving them twisting in the wind.
Never again will he be able to chunter on about the importance of decency or about the venality of Tory opponents. His entire political output – from demanding we rejoin the European Union to his pompous denunciations of policies designed to deter illegal immigration – will be coloured by the one thing that everyone knows about him. His reputation has been totally eviscerated.
Perhaps Davey will try to brush the scandal aside by taking ownership of a key electoral issue. But it seems extremely unlikely that he’ll be able to pull this off between now and the next election. Sitting prime ministers occasionally manage to do this, but compared with the commanding heights of 10 Downing Street, the nondescript headquarters of the Lib Dems in Westminster’s Vincent Square is no bully pulpit.
As leader of a minor party, Davey can only seek to project himself by saying things that, even at the best of times, political media will generally be tempted to ignore. From now on, lobby journalists will contrive to turn anything he says about any issue into a row linked to his bungling of the Post Office scandal.
Such is the fate of many people who are marginally in the public eye and just get unlucky. Weather forecaster Michael Fish presented thousands of perfectly reasonable televised forecasts until his retirement from the BBC in 2004. But we all know what he will be remembered for confidently asserting in October 1987 that there was not about to be a hurricane, just before the worst storm for 300 years hit southern England, killing 18 people and bringing down thousands of trees. Fifteen years later, Fish ruefully observed that if he had been given a penny for every subsequent mention of that moment he would be a millionaire.
Davey now finds himself symbolising a political establishment that simply doesn’t care about the fate of decent, upstanding ordinary citizens. In the short-term, there is almost nothing he can do to shake that off. Longer term, maybe he can reinvent himself as a national treasure by changing professions, Michael Portillo-style. But his political career is not going to recover. The Lib Dems might as well replace him now or witness him getting the Jo Swinson treatment from the electorate this autumn.
Short of becoming the subject of a sympathetic peak-time ITV drama about the unluckiest man in Westminster, in which he is played by loveable, dough-faced everyman Toby Jones, Davey is doomed to be useless in politics from here on in.
For years to come, wherever he goes, people will nudge each other and whisper: ‘Here, isn’t that the bloke who let down the postmasters?’
But before you get the hankies out, just recall that less than a year ago Davey was calling on Dominic Raab to resign as an MP for the sin of having been a bit terse with a few senior civil servants. The biter has been bitten.
Patrick O’Flynn is a former MEP.
Picture by: Getty.
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.