Liberal Democrat Conference in review: Ed Davey’s plan totopple the “Blue Wall” is left looking uncertain
Text | Claudia Mulholland
Date | 27 September 2023
Read | 5 min
Claudia Mulholland

Bournemouth has been awash with orange over the last four days, as Liberal Democrats returned to the south coast for their first in-person autumn conference since 2019. The run of recent by-election victories and burgeoning rumours that the Lib Dems could assume the role of “King Maker”at the next General Election sparked a level of media and corporate interest that the party has not enjoyed since 2015. However, as with Leader Ed Davey’s publicity stunt kayak capsize, the Lib Dems’ electoral fortunes may not be all plain sailing.

A fight against the Tories

In an interview last month, Davey said that he had spent the entirety of his political life fighting the Conservatives. That is clearly no different today. His abiding message for this conference was this – he wants the Tories out of Number 10. And his plan to do it? Push them out of power in the 80 Tory-held seats in which the Liberal Democrats came second in 2019 (and of course, Mid Bedfordshire, where the party came third to Labour) toppling the so-called “Blue Wall”.

To that end, the party is seeking to appeal directly to disillusioned, lifelong Conservative voters in those target seats. Their promise to Blue Wall voters is a fair deal on the economy and the cost-of-living crisis, jobs, nature, and public services including the NHS. TheLiberal Democrat membership has, on the whole, bought into that strategy. There was rapturous applause for Davey in the conference hall yesterday as he presented his commitments on health, an agenda designed specifically to appeal to those Blue Wall voters for whom access to public services is a key priority.

A softer stance on Brexit

But there is growing disquiet within the membership as to what that electoral strategy omits. For one, Davey and his front bench team have rowed back their rhetoric on Brexit. Having pledged in 2019 to “stopBrexit”, the party has now adopted a softer line with those target Tory voters in mind. It now envisages the UK rejoining the EU in the long term but focuses in the short term on rebuilding dynamic relationships with our European partners through the rehabilitation of schemes such as Erasmus Plus. This position does not sit well with members for whom Brexit, and its perceived failings, still stand out as perhaps the most important issue. Davey’s brief reference toBrexit was the only part of his speech yesterday which moved members to their feet. For now, however, Davey has managed to skirt this issue.

Leadership housing proposals demolished by youth wing amendment

Where he was not so successful was on the issue of housing.His attempt to pull back on housebuilding commitments was overruled by the youth wing of the party, ably led by rising star Janey Little, who captured the support of the membership to successfully recommit the party to its existing target of 380,000 new homes a year. The amendment was pitched by Little as a policy to inspire hope in struggling young voters, disillusioned by the realities of the rental market and unable to save for a deposit. Support for its peaks to a desire to rehabilitate the reputation of the party with younger voters after the tuition fees debacle. But there is concern within the leadership that the decision will skew its electoral strategy in the Blue Wall which pits the all-important Tory swing voters against the youth vote. And indeed, some senior figures have warned that the effects of this decision could be felt immediately in Mid Bedfordshire where the Emma Holland-Lindsay’s Conservative opponent will surely use it as a stick with which to beat her. If it turns out to be a successful line of attack it may resurface into key campaigning ground at the next General Election.

Low rumblings: if the Blue Wall doesn’t fall, Davey might

If that is the case, the Lib Dems may not be feeling as jubilant the morning after polling day as they were this weekend. And if so, questions will surely arise as to what is next for the party. Poor performance in 2019 demanded a new leader to replace Jo Swinson. The party might find itself again looking for a new leader to replace Davey if 2024 is similarly disappointing. Unlike in Conservative parliamentary circles, succession planning to replace Davey is not yet evident – Lib Dems, for now, fully buy in to the prospect of a storming success at the next election. So much so, its leadership is resolutely against discussing a Lib-Lab pact. But whilst manoeuvres may not yet be being made, potential leadership candidates are emerging. Wendy Chamberlain and Layla Moran both garner some support and are confident of re-election, but streets ahead is Deputy Leader, Daisy Cooper, who packed out rooms across the weekend in an indication of her standing with the membership. The future then, once again, looks female for the LiberalDemocrats.