The speech Ed Davey should have given at Spring Conference

It’s been three years since we’ve met up in person, so Spring Conference was a joyous event. It was also a chance to get fired up about the future: something the party’s leadership was keen to make the most of.

And so for the closing speech, Ed Davey’s team pulled out all the stops. There were not one but two emails from top brass in the hours before, one from CEO Mike Dixon offering an “exclusive preview” of the text and another from national campaign chief Dave McCobb telling us how much a draft of the speech had inspired him. Both encouraged us to spread a live video link far and wide. It was clear this was a big push.

And it worked. Those of us in York packed the hall to hear the party leader speak and we were ready to be inspired. Ed Davey came out to rapturous applause, and we were off.

It was a carefully crafted and moving speech – especially when Ed spoke to the struggles he has faced from the loss of his father and mother when young and the challenges he continues to experience with his son. He spelt out clearly what it is to be a Liberal, and was unflinching in his criticism of the current government and their policies.

But it was another member of the party’s top team, president Mark Pack, that highlighted the speech’s most unusual aspect: it peaked in the middle.

The standing ovation was indeed remarkable. Coming after a long series of complaints about the Tories, Ed Davey paused and seized on an issue most dear to Liberals’ hearts…

There’s another historic, longstanding difference between the Liberal Democrat economic vision – and those of others. More relevant today than ever. I call it the elephant in the room of British politics. An elephant we always point to, even though other parties daren’t even whisper its name.

And then the kicker, that ended with Ed in full power stance:

So let me shout it, yet again: if you want to boost our economy, you have to repair our broken relationship with Europe.


The room uprooted itself in approval. Rafters swayed and seats shook as the audience leapt to its feet and roared. Our leader was finally calling out the disaster that has been Brexit. After years of excuses and gaslighting from the political establishment and the press, there was no way out of it.

We as Lib Dems had warned and bellowed and fought and been proven right. Only we had a clean record on Europe and finally we were going to acknowledge that reality and, better, use it to blow away shameless political rivals.

The decision to called out this “elephant in the room” was rewarded with a minute-long standing ovation given with such conviction that even the man that delivered it was surprised. And as it began to die down, we waited with bated breath to hear how the party’s best and smartest had figured out how to navigate the difficult realities of Brexit with what we know to be true. We waited to be given our marching orders, receive our rallying cry…

…And then it became clear that the sentence that had forced us to our feet was not a headline but just part of a paragraph.

The speech went back to moaning:

Conference, you don’t need me to tell you what a disaster the Conservatives’ botched deal with Europe has been for our country. You see it every day in your communities: The businesses strangled by red tape. The farmers, fishers and factories, unable to sell to their customers on the continent. The empty shelves in local supermarkets. It’s why we campaigned against it. Why, when Boris Johnson brought his terrible deal to Parliament, when even Labour supported it, Liberal Democrats stood alone and voted against it.

We were back in the past, facing a bleak future. And Ed’s answer to all this?

Tear down the Conservatives’ trade barriers, rip up their red tape, and rebuild the ties of trust and friendship with our European neighbours.

Opportunity lost

The speech was fine. It identified the issues. It trod a careful line. But the moment of true joy was over before it began. Two paragraphs in a speech comprising another 84. A sop to the faithful and a bridge to talking about Putin and Ukraine.

Of course, the past five years have shown what a toxic wasteland discussion of Brexit is, just as trans rights has become a minefield despite the answer appearing obvious. Party HQ has been clear for months that it believes the best path forward on Brexit is to effectively adopt Labour’s stance: stay away from it as far as possible. Don’t risk alienating a split and angry electorate. Especially if you’re relying on Tory votes to win seats.

But for a glorious moment in York, it felt as if Ed was about to show us a clear path; the kind of political masterstroke you rarely experience but always sense is possible. With the world feeling like 1995 again, we were yearning to experience our Tony Blair moment. But it never came.

That’s not to disparage Ed Davey or the political team that decide which way the wind is (probably) blowing. It was a fine speech and it received a second standing ovation at the end. But it’s hard not to feel this was an opportunity missed, or a moment not fully grasped.

Polls have made it plain that the British public are extremely disappointed with what’s happened around leaving the EU. But with party strategists having decided on a course of (in)action, this growing consensus has been met with caveats (‘they don’t like the result but may not be against Brexit itself’) and political platitudes (‘it’s not what we hear voters on doorsteps talking about’) rather than spotting what a huge number of people in the party feel it represents: an opening.

Brexit presents a chance to distinguish and differentiate ourselves from our political rivals. It’s a route to the political high ground. It is also – as the York Ovation made clear – an issue that puts fire in the bellies of our most dedicated and passionate party members. And as we all know, the strength of that fire is what wins and loses elections.

If we can stop worrying about what might be, and find the strength and vision to articulate what can and should be, the broken promises and incompetent politics around Europe can turn our bird of freedom into a fire-breathing election dragon.

But, listen, you can already hear the rumbling voices of the cautious: it’s easier said than done. Voters are tired of talking about Brexit. The topic’s impossible to navigate. But that’s what great about politics: it has an uncanny ability to make the impossible possible.

There’s no point being a Liberal Democrat if you don’t have a healthy dose of excessive optimism. So to pave the way, let’s imagine a version of the York speech where Europe isn’t ticked off the list but instead used as a booster rocket, igniting our party’s passions, and delivering a gut-feel, gut-punch oration. The hell with careful political calculation. What does that speech look and sound like? Give me a day and come back to see.

* Thomas Prince is a pseudonym for a party member whose identity is known to the LDV team.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Mel Borthwaite 24th Mar '23 - 12:20pm

    Excellent article. Sums the situation up perfectly.

  • A hint of St Augustine’s oft quoted prayer, “Oh, Lord, make me chaste….. but not yet”.

  • James Belchamber 24th Mar '23 - 1:12pm

    Isn’t what “Thomas” longs for essentially the speech Jo Swinson gave (to multiple standing ovations) during the excessively optimistic Autumn 2019 conference?

  • Michael Cole 24th Mar '23 - 2:47pm

    From Jo Grimond to Paddy Ashdown and beyond we have been encouraged to be bold.

    So leadership, please take note of this excellent article by Thomas Prince.

  • Mark Johnston 24th Mar '23 - 3:29pm

    Ed’s fifth conference-leader speech but only the first with a section on Europe. Better later than never. But little time left to catch-up before the election. We’re 37 points behind Labour. Wake up and smell the coffee, Ed?

  • Mark Johnston 24th Mar '23 - 4:37pm

    Also to note that the Guardian’s correspondent had a similar impression, reporting:
    “The speech largely steered away from specifics – while Davey called Brexit “the elephant in the room of British politics”, he gave no details of what the Lib Dems would do about it beyond improving ties with Europe.”
    Full story:

  • Thomas Prince 24th Mar '23 - 7:35pm

    @James Belchamber: I’ve written an alternative speech that doesn’t shy away from Europe and includes Swinson’s most famous slogan (epitaph?). But I think the tone is very different – will be interested to hear what you think. Should be up tomorrow

  • Thomas Prince 24th Mar '23 - 7:39pm

    @Mark Johnston – I think that Guardian article is a good reflection of the positives and negatives of the speech. Some good lines; some topics tackled; but little meat on the bones; no real challenge. As Michael Cole pointed out – as LibDems we need to be bold.

  • Stephen Broadhead 25th Mar '23 - 8:24am

    Today I will be in Nantwich on the streets with the European Movement – Macclesfield and East Cheshire. Some Labour members will be there. Lets be bold and call Brexit out as being a total failure. Will the EU have a new type of Membership that is easier and quicker for countries to join? Stephen Broadhead, Macclesfield

  • David Franks 25th Mar '23 - 11:24am

    It is all so frustrating. What do ordinary members have to do to get the ‘leadership’ to shout about our clear and distinctive position on relationships with the EU? More then 50% of the electorate now say Brexit was a mistake so why can’t we take the clear policy position voted upon last year to make us stand out as very different from the guilty parties? Come on Ed. Either do it for us or move over to make room for someone who will.

  • Interesting points well made. I don’t agree with everything said but fair comment nonetheless.

    The elephant in the room is not Brexit per se but the belief, unspoken among many Brits, that we as a country are bigger than Europe. Patently nonsense of course, but I hear it in the words used by voters on the doorstep, both leavers and remainers I should note.

    Maybe it’s geographical or maybe historical, a legacy of WW2, the Industrial Revolution, Empire, etc, but Britain feels it is special in a way that I sense few other countries in Europe do.

    Is it special? I think so, I’ve chosen to live here and love it (well most of the time, anyway).

    Is it bigger than Europe? Clearly not. We will learn that to our cost as the economic, political, social and cultural ramifications of Brexit truly sink in.

    Question is, how do we row back from this position when a significant segment of the population, both leavers and remainers, see membership of the EU as a subservient position?

  • Peter Martin 26th Mar '23 - 8:58pm

    @ Tom Reeve,

    Would you say Canadians don’t want to become part of the USA for the same reasons you are ascribing to those of us who don’t want to be a part of a nascent United States of Europe?

    For the most part we’ve no problems with the free trade aspects of the EU /EEC. If it had stopped as it was prior to the Maastricht Treaty, there wouldn’t have been anywhere near the same pressure for Brexit.

  • Nonconformistradical 27th Mar '23 - 7:25am

    @Tom Reeve
    “Is it special? I think so”
    Why do you think it is special?

  • Martyn Bond 27th Mar '23 - 4:39pm

    Our relations with the continent did not start and will not stop with Brexit. Since the end of WW1 there has been a bitterly destructive struggle for the ‘soul of Europe’ between competing ideologies. Finally the people(s) of Europe are somewhere near agreeing on a democratic/rule of law consensus across over thirty countries, either ‘in’ or closely associated with the EU. War on its Eastern border has served as the catalyst for an increasingly clear European identity. As an early thinker on European cooperation put it exactly 100 years ago in his political bestseller ‘Paneuropa’, the only choice for the states of Europe is ‘to unite or to die’. I am glad there is one political party in the UK that prefers the first option.

  • Peter Hirst 1st Apr '23 - 4:41pm

    I agree. A leader’s speech should focus on our vision for the country. The time scale might alter and what the priorities are. What do you remember from Ed’s speech? Is it the lambasting of the other Parties or his idea of where we will be regarding our particular issues?

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