The speech Ed Davey should have given at Spring Conference – my version

Ed Davey gave a speech at the York Spring Conference that received two standing ovations: one, as you’d expect, at the end; the other when he spoke about the “elephant in the room” – how our entire political establishment continues to ignore Brexit. However, after briefly mentioning red tape and improving relations, the speech rushed away from the topic and into the safe hands of president Putin.

It was a missed opportunity, as the standing ovation made plain. A previous article argued that far from being a liability, the issue of Europe and Brexit could be our party’s election thunderbolt.

It’s all very well to say that, but how do you navigate a topic as toxic as Brexit? What would Ed’s speech have looked like if we decided on a bolder approach?

Brave New World

It’s worth watching the speech to get a feel for where it was going – you can see it on YouTube in its entirety. Europe kicks at the 40-minute mark. But if you want to get closer to the action, start at 37-38 mins, where Ed Davey talks about a bolder approach to our economy.

Wait for the ovation to die down and then imagine for a second.

Because here is the rest of the speech Ed Davey should have given at Spring Conference.

…repair our broken relationship with Europe… [OVATION]

That relationship with our closest trading partner has been badly damaged in the past few years. And we are all feeling the impact. Even those who pretend they don’t.

But we would never have gotten here if the British public had heard the full truth, the bold truth about our country and that decision to leave. So let’s face a couple of bold truths ourselves, here in York.

When it came to Brexit, we fought hard.

We fought hard and we fought honestly.

We fought hard and we fought well.

We fought hard and we lost.

We’re out of the European Union, and we’re not going back in. Not for a while at least.

And it’s painful. It’s painful because everything we warned about has come true. The fracture of hundreds of thousands of agreements and relationships, affecting everything from our food to our families. Brexit has come with a steep price. And we’re still paying it now.

But you can’t change the past; you can only work toward the future.

There is a reason that leaving the EU has become the elephant in the room: because it stirred up so much disagreement, so much animosity, so much anger, that it’s become toxic. Radioactive with an undetermined half-life. We all know we need to talk about it again; we just don’t know when.

So let’s start now. And the only place we can begin is where we agree – not just us, the Liberal Democrats, we all know where we stand…

We had a slogan that spelt it out. An election slogan in fact. Probably the first in electoral history where a political party swore at its voters: “Bollocks to Brexit.” Yes, bollocks to Brexit.

Well, it bit us in the bollocks. We threw everything we had into that campaign and we came out with one seat less: our leader’s.

Hard truths.

Here’s another hard truth. We are the fourth-placed party in our national politics. Not the third – the SNP has that – the fourth. That means we need to work with people, in concert with them, persuade them of our point, move them with our arguments – both rational and emotional – to have any lasting impact.

And here’s the truth: that approach is better. Better for this nation, better for our politics, better for our people. As LibDems, we don’t believe in proportional representation because we think we’ll do better out of it – although, to be fair, we would – but because it’s a better way to run our country. To get rid of lurching, short-term and occasionally idiotic policies to match the lurching, short-term and occasionally idiotic prime ministers.

But we do need to find where we can agree, across party lines, to make things work. And when it comes to Europe, we can all agree on one thing: we need to make the absolute best of what we have.

We have a chance here to show the country that when it comes to big issues and big problems, the answer isn’t to pin the blame on people, the less fortunate, or those who seek a better life from war-torn countries. The answer isn’t to attempt to pass laws that break the law to try and impose your deluded version of reality. The answer isn’t to sit still, say nothing and rely on an outdated voting system to shoo you in because everyone’s got fed up with the other lot.

No, the answer is to show leadership. And maturity. And deal with complex issues in complex ways, using experts for answers and communicators for clarity. If there’s one thing that no other political party – not the Conservatives, not Labour, not the SNP or DUP or UKIP or the Greens – can claim over us is that we know how to do policy.

We know how to look at a problem deep in the eyes, and find not just a temporary solution or sticking plaster, but a fresh way of looking at the issue, recognise why it’s stop working, how society has moved on, what problems we have dragged with us over successive governments and how to cut them loose. We know how to govern.

So let’s show this country how we govern. Let’s point to how our councils do things better, for people, in their area – and let’s show how the only thing that holds back more and greater improvements is the way we centralise all our funding in Whitehall. Let’s show how debate – real debate, not shouting like schoolboys at a sports match – leads to better decisions, and better outcomes.

And let’s be open, and honest, and magnanimous. People voted for Brexit out of an honest belief that it would make this country better and stronger. They didn’t know – they still don’t, and perhaps never will – that the problems they faced, the growing challenges they were under weren’t because of immigrants, or decisions made in Brussels, or the European Court of Human Rights.

It was because this country has failed to update itself. To embrace the future. We yearn for a past that no longer exists. We forget what once made us great. It’s time for a different kind of revolution. One where new ideas are embraced, where old structures are cherished but renewed and rebuilt where necessary, one where the symbol of the future is a bird of freedom, not a tired old oak or a sweet-smelling but short-lived rose.

It’s time for all of us to embrace truth, embrace honesty, embrace ambition, and embrace the Liberal Democrats!



* 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.


  • In general I agree with this although perhaps longer than I would have gone for. It explains why brexit has,is and will fail and cool level headed thinking is now required. Sunak is already signalling today’s banking agreements.

  • Mel Borthwaite 25th Mar '23 - 11:41am

    As I see it, about half of voters in England would support rejoining the EU yet no major party is willing to represent this position. I can’t understand the reluctance of the Liberal Democrats to lay claim to their ground by taking a firm ‘rejoin’ position.

  • Those half of the electorate who want to rejoin may nevertheless not see this as a top priority.However that said we do need now to stake out distinctive ground on brexit before Sunaks conservatives get there. With BoJo in retreat Sunak and Hunt will feel emboldened to move nearer to EU despite keeping brexit done.

  • Thomas Prince 25th Mar '23 - 1:25pm

    @Ian Shires – Have given your comment some thought – and you’re right. It’s too conciliatory. It’s the point in a speech where the leader should unapologetically set out their stall. Your point about better policies comes after – but it is lost in the step-down.

    How about this instead…

    “…because it’s a better way to run our country. To get rid of lurching, short-term and occasionally idiotic policies to match the lurching, short-term and occasionally idiotic prime ministers.

    [DELETE] But we do need to find where we can agree, across party lines, to make things work. And when it comes to Europe, we can all agree on one thing: we need to make the absolute best of what we have. [/DELETE]

    “I’m not sure what’s more galling: the fact that the country was persuaded to vote for Brexit with false assurances of success, or the fact that those in charge were so blinded by their determination to win that they didn’t plan beyond victory.

    “And if that has a familiar ring to it, it should. Because the last time we had an unchallenged majority government, a Labour government, the same thing happened. We went to war in Iraq. And who was the only party yelling from the rooftops that it was a bad idea? That’s right, the Liberal Democrats.

    “This country needs us. It needs us to cut the straps off blinkered politicians, challenge their tribal ideology, puncture egos, and point out that the emperor, yet again, has no clothes.

    “The country also need us to provide solutions. Better solutions to the one we and the country are subjected to year after year…

    [PICK BACK UP] We have a chance to show the country that when it comes to big issues and big problems, the answer isn’t to pin the blame on people, the less fortunate, or those who seek a better life from war-torn countries…”

  • Thomas Prince 25th Mar '23 - 1:31pm

    @Tim Rogers: re: being too long. Rest of Ed Davey’s speech: 841 words. This replacement: 917 words. So basically the same length. But, yes, brevity is always better. Some of the more flowery stuff could go and little would be lost.

  • @Thomas. I agree. Majority governments have given us bad outcomes like Iraq war and brexit which is a strong argument for PR.

  • Peter Martin 25th Mar '23 - 9:04pm

    @ Russell,

    “Majority governments have given us bad outcomes like Iraq war and brexit”

    Even if MPs in the 2001 Parliaments had been represented in proportion to the popular vote the result would still have been the same. The Blairite wing of the Labour Party plus the Tories would still have had enough votes on the Iraq war.

    MPs voted by 544 to 53 in favour of the Bill to hold a referendum on the EU. Again even if the MPs in the 2015 Parliament had been elected in a way you might have approved of it is difficult to see how a 10:1 majority would have been transformed into a defeat for the Bill. Don’t forget that this Parliament would have included large number of UKIP MPs too if PR had been in operation.

    This is not to say we shouldn’t have PR, but please don’t run away with the idea that only the Lib Dems would benefit. We’d have at least 6 major parties vying for power in England alone. Both the Labour and Tory Parties would almost certainly split.

  • @Peter Martin: You miss the fact Parliaments elected under PR would have had to be coalition or minority governments. In 2001, it would probably have been a Labour + Lib Dem coalition, and Lib Dems in government could have vetoed sending troops into Iraq. It doesn’t matter how a hypothetical vote in Parliament would have gone; with the control the government has over the legislative agenda it woldn’t have even had the chance to vote on it. The only way it could have happened would have been under a Grand Coalition of the two big parties, but that was hardly ever going to happen.

    It’s the same in 2015. The Tories would have been forced to work with party/parties that did not want a Brexit referendum, and certainly not in the way it was ultimately held. Opposition parties mostly voted for the referendum (mistakenly IMO), but it is doubtful that they would have indulged a minority government in the same way.

  • Peter Martin 26th Mar '23 - 11:52am

    @ Alex,

    So you’re saying a more PR system of Government is preferable because it gives coalition Govts more power to disallow voting on issues that it doesn’t want to be voted on, or even discussed? That’s an odd view from a supporter of party with the word ‘Democrat’ in its name.

    In any case, I’m not sure you’re right about that. The point you’ve missed is that the composition of both Parliaments can’t be calculated simply on the basis of the actual votes cast. The minor parties, as I’m sure you’ll be aware, get squeezed in terms of vote share as well as number of seats won. Even it had been, UKIP with nearly 13% of the vote in 2015 would have had something like 13% of the seats and would therefore have had greater representation than the Lib Dems who managed just less than 8%.

  • @Peter Martin: I was commenting on how I think it would turn out in a Westminster-style Parliamentary system, not how I think it should be. But let’s say we had PR and a Dutch-style Parliamentary system where Parliament has a lot more autonomy and ministers don’t sit in Parliament (so no payroll vote). In that case government would not have control over what MPs vote on, but at the same time MPs would be a lot freer to defy their party whips and even the government in which their party participates. Heavily whipped Parliaments approved the Iraq war and the Brexit referendum. Do you think Labour MPs compelled to vote for the Iraq war would have done the same they were essentially at arm’s length from their party in government?

  • @Peter Martin: Why do you suppose PR would cause minority parties to be squeezed? Surely it’s the opposite, people would be more inclined to vote for small parties if they thought each vote counted.

  • Peter Martin 26th Mar '23 - 2:09pm

    @ Alex,

    I was meaning that the current system causes minority parties to be squeezed. Sorry if i didn’t make that clear.

    I’d hope you were right about Labour MPs and any future Iraqi type vote but the current leadership, despite what was initially promised, is the most authoritarian I can remember. Anyone who steps out of line is likely to face expulsion, or for MPs, the loss of the whip. I can’t see it would be any different, even in the highly unlikely event of an immediate switch to the type of PR system you advocate.

  • Peter Davies 27th Mar '23 - 8:50am

    Under STV, independents have a fighting chance. If Tony Blair had expelled all MPs who voted against the Iraq invasion, he could have expected many to retain their seats.

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