Rishi Sunak is having a shocker. Keir Starmer is edgy and apprehensive that he may not deliver. Nigel Farage is more short-tempered than usual as he wonders whether life inside the Westminster tent could match raining on it. It is difficult to tell which of two acid-tongued bald men runs the SNP. Carla Denyer had a good debate but is the Green party really about leaders?

There is one party leader who is enjoying this general election: the leader of the Liberal Democrats. Yet his party has no chance of being part of a government. More surprising still, Sir Ed Davey, hitherto a boring middle-aged man almost to the point of invisibility, has done it by making the Liberal Democrat campaign all about himself. 

Davey has kept his party in the news by ignoring the familiar question: “What is the point of the Liberal Democrats.” Instead, he has adopted a two-pronged strategy to make sure that his party is not ignored; one is performative entertainment and the other is more substantive. 

The Liberal Democrats’ low-budget stunts with blue-painted models after recent general elections have been replaced by Davey making a fool of himself. Entertaining photo-ops are now become a daily feature of his campaign – repeatedly falling off a paddle board into Windermere; riding a bike down a hill, legs spread wide; drumming on a silver balloon; zooming down a water slide. True to form, he ended the launch of the Lib Dems’ lengthy 2024 manifesto by heading to ride the fairground at Thorpe Park. “I’ve been told an election is a roller coaster”, he almost explained.

Davey’s campaign team have correctly calculated the appetite of the media for good pictures, especially those that are not too flattering to the subject. Beer and fags Farage is a past master at this game. There is also a hunger, or at least politicians seem to think there is, to exploit their personal histories especially when they have been through hard times. 

Sir Keir Starmer has repeated “my dad was a toolmaker, my mum was a nurse” to the point of mockery. For what it is worth, this seems to have wiped away the knighthood and the KC, resulting in him being called, potentially, the most working-class Labour prime minister ever. 

Ed Davey has a first class PPE degree from Oxford University as well as a knighthood to get round. The Lib Dems’ first election video took him back to his boyhood roots in Nottingham. It was one of the more convincing exercises in this well-trodden genre because Davey seemed both relaxed and moved. His life story also related directly to the themes of support for the NHS and social care which the Lib Dems are pursuing for the election. Davey revealed that illness killed his father aged just 38 and his mother at 46. Other scenes showed Davey looking after his severely disabled son John, who requires round-the-clock care.

In the 1980s, David Steel told the Liberals to go back to their constituencies and prepare for government. In the 1990s, Paddy Ashdown planned for government with Tony Blair. In 2010, Nick Clegg led the Liberal Democrats into a coalition with David Cameron. It was their first time in government since the Second World War. 

The coalition was the last stable full-term government that the UK has had. But, as so often, the junior coalition partner was punished at the subsequent election. In 2015, its number of MPs fell from 57 to 8. The bruises are still there. The only complaint aimed directly at Daisy Cooper, Davey’s deputy, during last week’s seven-headed TV debate was about her party’s coalition-era U-turn on university tuition fees.

The PTSD of coalition has turned the Lib Dems into a post-governmental party. They have ruled out joining another coalition with any party (not that one seems likely this time). Davey doesn’t talk about his time in government – perhaps because he was one of many responsible ministers who did little about the sub-Post Office scandal. Instead, he merely states the obvious: a vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote for their policies, and for more Lib Dem MPs to promulgate them. Even the title of the manifesto does not pledge to reach the promised land, it is modestly only “For A Fair Deal”.

The Liberal Democrats are implacable advocates of proportional representation or “fair votes” as they like to call it. This makes sense since third forces would normally get more MPs if they were allocated by percentage shares. But the prospects are not the same for individual third forces. As their four by-election victories in the last parliament demonstrated, the Liberal Democrats have become expert at concentrating their votes in winnable seats, while the support for the Greens and Reform UK is spread out less effectively.

YouGov’s recent MRP poll is setting the standard for expectations in this election based on constituency-by-constituency analysis. It projects that the Liberal Democrats will go up from 11 MPs in the last parliament to 48. This is about the same as they won in the New Labour landslide of 1997, although the parties vote share is down from 17 per cent to 11 per cent. YouGov’s model, sampled days before Farage became a contender, “shows Reform UK performing strongly in a number of seats but still a long way off winning in any.” 

Lib Dem professionalism extends to targeting at most 80 of the 650 seats in contention in this election, including those they now hold. Most of them are held by the Conservatives. David Cameron built his majority by “decapitating” his erstwhile coalition colleagues, notably in the South West of England. According to YouGov, the Lib Dems may savour sweet revenge claiming the heads of prominent Conservatives including Jeremy Hunt, Alex Chalk, and Gillian Keegan.

Labour appears on course to make significantly more gains than the Lib Dems, as they rebuild the Red Wall in the North and Midlands, and crash a wrecking ball into the Blue Wall of Conservative seats in the South East. Davey can live with that provided tactical voting delivers his party a share of the spoils. 

The Lib Dems and Labour coexist. There are no significant battles between them for seats in this election. The Lib Dems are overwhelmingly after Tory votes, and Labour votes loaned to them tactically in a few Tory-held seats. The voters they are after range from lifelong Conservatives to younger people still forming their political identities.  Some Conservatives are appalled by their party’s drift to the right towards Reform UK. Younger potential Lib Dems have probably been to university, they may have moved out of big cities to the suburbs or countryside for economic reasons and are preparing to “settle down”. 

Wary of reopening Brexit sensitivities, the Lib Dems leave their plan to “Fix the UK’s broken relationship with Europe” to the final, twenty-second, section of their manifesto, titled only “Intenational”. This is over a hundred pages from the front. But their pro-EU stance is their second core belief, along with fair votes. Their ultimate aim, as stated for this election, goes no further than to “rejoin the single market”. This lays down a clear dividing line with Labour (and, of course, the Conservatives). The UK may be outside the EU, Davey told the launch, but “we are rule takers now”. As for the freedom of movement which would come with the single market, he retorted “our young people deserve some freedom”. 

At the very least, such views commanded the support of 48 per cent of the population at the time of referendum in 2016. Polling suggests more people agree today. 

The Liberal Democrats are not making a big noise about their principles. They seldom have. They have also always been open to support from those discontented with the two big parties – no questions asked. 

The trick is to make sure that the voters know that the Liberal Democrats are there and hoping for your support on the big day. Sir Ed Davey is doing that for sure and he is having a bit of fun on the way. On 5 July, we will find out if he is still smiling. 

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