Text of Ed Davey’s York 2023 speech in full

18 Mar 2024

It was 9.35 on Thursday evening. 25 minutes to close of polls. I was still knocking on doors, trying to convince just a few more voters to get to the polling station and vote Liberal Democrat.It was 1997. And we won by 56 votes.

We weren’t meant to win that seat. We had no right to win it. But – with a great team, working incredibly hard – we did. 

And because we won – because of those 56 votes – We have been able to help tens of thousands of people across Kingston and Surbiton. Found homes for families in fear of homelessness. Saved the local nursery or day care centre people rely on. Brought together families, cruelly ripped apart by the Home Office. And yes, cleaned out sewage from the local river.

Friends, we have changed so many lives for the better in Kingston and Surbiton. Thanks to that unlikely, 56-vote breakthrough in 1997. A once-in-a-generation election.

And now, a generation later, we have the opportunity to do it again. To get more Liberal Democrats elected, To change the lives of their constituents for the better, To kick the Conservatives out of Number Ten, and transform our country for good.

Now, of course, we don’t yet know when election day will be. We don’t know, because it’s in the hands of just one man. 

It’s pretty much the only thing left that Rishi Sunak controls any more. 

He certainly doesn’t control his party. Certainly not his Cabinet. Certainly not the healthcare crisis or the economy.

In fact, the Prime Minister sounds like he’s given up. The Budget revealed he’s already planning for life after Downing Street.

He says he wants to turn the UK into a new Silicon Valley. Just to save him having to commute to California! I call that career planning on the taxpayer.

But just picture Rishi Sunak now, as he sits at his desk in Downing Street… Coke in one hand. Crystal ball in the other. Trying desperately to predict the date of least catastrophe for Tory MPs. Like the Conservatives’ very own Nostradamus.

Who knows? Maybe – despite what he says – Rishi will call the election tomorrow. Or next week. I certainly hope so. The country can’t wait a moment longer to see the back of this terrible Government.

And as we’ve shown this weekend, we’re ready. We’re up for the fight. 

We have our amazing candidates – already brilliant local champions for their areas. We have the right policies – that speak to the challenges people are facing. And we have all of you – the strongest campaigning force in British politics today.

Liberal Democrats… I’m so proud of everything we’ve already achieved together. And I’m so excited for what’s coming next.

So come on Rishi, get that podium out in front of Number Ten. Time to go to the palace.

The British people are ready. And so are we!

But maybe he will drag it out until the autumn. We heard this week that some Tory MPs are pinning their hopes on England winning the Euros this summer, somehow thinking that will send voters flocking to the Conservatives.

Now, far be it from me to give the Conservatives advice on their electoral strategy… But I think it’ll take more than Harry Kane’s right foot to make voters forget about years of economic chaos, rising NHS waiting lists and sewage in our rivers.

And yet, Sunak’s still there. Squatting in Downing Street while his Government limps on feebly. Filming ever more tedious videos for his TikTok account, and picking ever more poisonous and divisive culture war fights. 

You know, the Prime Minister was right to warn about the dangers of extremism and division in our great country…But the Conservative Party needs to take a big, long look in the mirror. The party that brought us Boris Johnson, Suella Braverman and Lee Anderson – Proudly funded by a man who made the most appalling racist and sexist comments – The Conservatives no longer represent British values of decency, tolerance and the rule of law.

The truth is, this Prime Minister is now so weak, he will say anything to stop his own right-wing MPs from kicking him out – before the British people get the chance. He’s outrageously running down the clock. Enjoying the trappings of office for a few months more – While the crises facing our country just get worse and worse and worse.

Conference – that shouldn’t even be an option for a Prime Minister. And really, it’s a small but telling example of what is wrong with our broken political system – and the two big parties who prop it up. The only reason Rishi Sunak gets to pick a date of his choosing is because, two years ago, the Conservatives passed a law taking that power away from Parliament and handing it solely to the Prime Minister. And – while Liberal Democrat MPs stood firm and voted no – Labour stood back and let it pass.

A shameless act of Conservatives rigging the system in their favour, again, but aided and abetted by Labour in the hope that it might one day benefit them too. Never mind the damage it does to public trust in our democracy. Never mind the chaos and uncertainty it causes for business. Never mind all that. 

The only thing that mattered to the Conservative and Labour parties was their own narrow self-interest.

And Liberal Democrats… That’s what sets us apart from the other parties. We don’t ask how we can benefit from the current system. We ask how we can change the system to benefit everyone.

We don’t see politics as a game of accumulating power for ourselves. We see it as a chance to put real power in everyone’s hands. To give people a fair deal.

Because the mess our country is in, demands not a plan to tweak things, but a plan to transform everything.

When I travel across our great United Kingdom…When I hear from families struggling to make ends meet…Small businesses crushed under the weight of Conservative red tape and crippling energy costs…Patients waiting months or even years for the treatment they desperately need…

When I see how so much in our country just isn’t working the way it should – From crumbling schools to sewage in our rivers –I simply can’t understand how the other parties don’t seem to get it.

“Steady as she goes” isn’t going to cut it. The same old answers will only leave us with the same old problems. Tinkering around the edges won’t come close to solving anything.

And yet that’s what both the Conservatives and Labour are offering. They’re both trying to cloak themselves in the costume of change – But they’re both really saying “keep things the same”.

But friends, our country needs change. Real change. Across the board – from our economy to our NHS to our environment. On issue after issue, problem after problem, the Liberal Democrat approach is so different.

Because we don’t just want to change things on the surface – paper over the cracks, but leave the foundations to crumble underneath. We want real change. That makes a real difference to people’s lives.

But that change will only happen if we change our political system too. If we’re going to stop the chaos and corruption…If we’re going to end the scandals and sleaze… If we’re going to have a politics that puts the country first, not parties – the people’s interests, not politicians’… we have to change the whole system.

First-Past-the-Post. It distorts democracy. It leaves millions of people feeling powerless and excluded. Unable to hold those in power properly to account.

Conference, we know proportional representation would be so much fairer…So much better for our politics and our country. And a majority of the British people now back electoral reform. So why hasn’t it changed? Why are we still the only party fighting for political change?

Because for the Conservative and Labour parties, the current system suits them. It lets the Conservatives in most of the time, despite the majority of people voting against them. But Labour knows – if they wait long enough, their turn will come.

And so it swings – from blue to red and back again. So nothing else really changes either. The problems in our country mount up. Governments get ever more out of touch. And people are left feeling ever more disillusioned.

It can’t go on like this Conference. We urgently need to mend our broken politics. 

And yes, that means changing the Government – but that alone won’t be nearly enough. First-Past-the-Post has to go.

We must win the fight for fair votes.

And by the way, if this week’s news has shown anything, it’s that we must also cap donations to political parties. So that even the wealthiest racists cannot buy power and influence over the Conservative Party.

That’s why our role at this election is so critical. Because only we are putting forward the transformational political change this moment demands, if we are to tackle the other crises that are hurting so many people across our country right now.

Like the NHS. More than six million people are stuck on waiting lists. Tens of thousands of cancer patients are waiting months to start urgent treatment. People are waiting hours in pain and fear after calling 999, While ambulances are stuck outside hospitals, waiting to hand patients over.

Things have got so bad under this Conservative Government, fixing them is an enormous task.

And not just in England. One of the many great disappointments of the Labour Government in Wales and the Nationalist Government in Scotland is their total failure to get their Health Services working for patients.

Fixing our NHS will take far more than the timid policy-by-press-release of the other parties. It will take the big, bold reforms only the Liberal Democrats are putting forward. And that Daisy Cooper is leading the charge for brilliantly.

So that when your child is ill, you can get them seen by a doctor at your local surgery. So when you wake up with your tooth in agony, you can get an emergency appointment with your local dentist. So when your mum needs medicine for a sore throat, she can get a prescription from a community pharmacist. So you don’t have to sit and wait hours in A&E, when you shouldn’t even be there.

Investing wisely in community services, to save lives and save money in the long-run, instead of just throwing cash at crisis after crisis, with nothing to show for it. Better for the NHS. Better for taxpayers. Better for patients.

And there’s another part of our plan to save the NHS, that really sets us apart – care.

Because as Liberal Democrats we understand. If you want to fix the NHS, you have to fix care too. Social care. Family care.

For the grandma who is stuck in an overcrowded hospital ward right now. Just imagine if she could go home today. And see her grandson. Watch him play. Imagine if she could be cared for – at home – by her children, who are desperate to look after her. Imagine if they had the support, the equipment, the professional care that they need. Imagine how much better that would be for everyone. And for our NHS.

That is what our plans would make possible. That is what we’re talking about, when we talk about care. And that’s why we have put such an emphasis on supporting carers – Young and old, paid and unpaid – The unsung heroes, who do such a remarkable job looking after loved ones.

Some people have criticised me for going on and on about carers – Even saying that it’s only because I’ve been a carer most of my life – for my mum, for my Nanna and for my son. But let us tell them this:

It’s because of real-life experiences like mine – and the real-life experiences of millions of people – That Liberal Democrats will always be the political voice of our country’s carers. Only we truly understand that if you care about the NHS, you have to care about care.

But like so many big challenges, fixing social care will take a different kind of politics. Because it needs a long-term agreement. One that will stand the test of time – and last beyond one Parliament and one party’s turn in Government. 

That’s why we are calling on all parties to include in their manifestos a cast-iron commitment to finally hold cross-party talks on social care – to finally forge the agreement that has been kicked down the road for far too long.

So that everyone can get the care they need, when they need it and where they need it – in their own homes if possible. So that no one is hit with catastrophic costs, or forced to sell their home, just because they or their loved ones need care. And so that all carers are properly recognised and supported.

Rishi Sunak, Keir Starmer…Come to the table. Bring your ideas. Let’s finally sort this out.

These are big, liberal solutions for the NHS. Which was, after all, a big liberal invention. Not just because it was a Liberal, William Beveridge, who laid its foundations – But because of the values it embodies.

Good health services – open to all, regardless of wealth – give people the freedom they need to live their lives as they choose. And, since it is the poorest and most vulnerable who are hit hardest by inadequate healthcare, tackling this crisis is crucial for building a fairer, more equal society too. 

A well-functioning NHS is essential for individual freedom, for social justice, and for national prosperity. So the NHS is central to the Liberal Democrat election campaign – and beyond.

Not just because it’s the number one issue on the doorsteps, but because it’s a fundamental part of building the liberal society we all want to see. And it’s a fundamental part of growing our economy again, after years of Conservative stagnation.

Because the reality is this: a healthy economy needs a healthy population, and a healthy NHS.

Getting people off waiting lists. Giving them the treatment they need. Getting them fit and healthy and back to work… That would be truly transformational for them, for their families, and for our economy too.

But as well as a healthier NHS, our economy needs a lot more to repair it after suffering so much Conservative vandalism. 

The enormous damage of their terrible Brexit deal… The years of unfair tax hikes on families already struggling to get by…

The catastrophe of Liz Truss’s calamitous mini-Budget. Sorry, I should have said “Liz Truss’s very fine but tragically misunderstood mini-Budget”… I’ve got to stop letting the Deep State write my speeches!

Conference, the sheer political, economic and financial instability – all caused by the Conservatives – is undermining the dreams and hopes of families and businesses across our country.

All this instability because this Conservative Party has been consumed by the most damaging, never-ending soap opera in British political history. And Tory MPs have given us another episode this weekend, with plots for yet another Prime Minister – a fourth in less than two years.

Conference, I don’t know who’s writing this soap opera…But it jumped the shark a long time ago! It’s time for it to end.

And we Liberal Democrats must show that we have the big, transformational ideas our economy needs. 

Expanding apprenticeships, so young people can gain the skills and experience to make the most of their potential. Backing small businesses, so entrepreneurs can grow their firms and create good jobs for people in their communities. Investing in home insulation and renewable power, so families struggling to pay their energy bills can stay warm for less – and use cheaper, cleaner energy too.

And Conference, I mean really investing in renewables.  Leave it to others to back away, water it down, shrink from the challenges before us… We will stick to our guns. We know that such investments are necessary – not just to meet our crucial climate goals – but necessary to transform our economy for the future.

While others say our country can’t afford to invest in that future, we know our children can’t afford us not to.

And there’s something else we can’t afford not to tackle head-on. Even if the other parties think it’s too difficult or too politically uncomfortable…Fixing our broken relationship with Europe.

Ending the destructive cycle of conflict and confrontation the Conservatives have plunged us into with our nearest neighbours and biggest trading partners. Ripping up the pointless red tape the Conservatives have inflicted, to free British businesses and bring down prices in the supermarket. Tearing down trade barriers so our farmers and fishing communities can sell more of their produce in the EU again.

Leave it to the others just to fiddle around with the fineprint of a bad deal we all know can’t be fixed. Only Liberal Democrats have a clear plan to rebuild this relationship with a better deal for Britain. To renew the ties of trust and friendship, to set us on the path back to the Single Market.

Our plan to repair the damage the Conservatives have done, and, in time, to restore Britain’s place at the heart of Europe. Where we belong.

We know it won’t be easy. We know it won’t be quick. The ties that have been so badly severed can only be stitched back together gradually, over time. This will take great care and determined effort over years. But if we are to transform Britain’s economic future, we must start today.

A new relationship with Europe is about our economy, but it’s also about Britain’s place in the world.

A world that is becoming increasingly dangerous and unstable. Vladimir Putin’s war machine has been ravaging Ukraine for more than two years now. We continue to stand firm with the brave Ukrainian people as they resist his onslaught. And with those in Russia who resist his oppression too. Putin’s murder of Alexei Navalny, a democrat and a true Russian patriot, has not silenced opposition to his tyranny.

But the prospect of another Trump presidency in the United States? That threatens to strengthen Putin’s hand, weaken NATO, and destabilise the globe even further. The thought of another four years of Donald Trump supposedly leading the free world is truly frightening. And even without Trump in power, Republicans in Congress have demonstrated that we cannot count on the US to stand shoulder to shoulder with us in Europe against Putin’s aggression.

So for the Conservatives to be cutting the British Army by ten thousand troops under the current circumstances isn’t just irresponsible, it is a threat to our long-term national security. So to Rishi Sunak, I say this: Send Putin and other dictators around the world a message. Reverse your cuts to the British Army now.

Whether it’s troop cuts or the Trump threat, we are the only party speaking out. Only Liberal Democrats understand that – on the world stage, as in domestic politics – “steady as she goes” simply won’t do. The UK must once again lead within Europe on our mutual security.

Starting not only by seizing frozen Russian assets in the UK, but bringing European governments together to use all our frozen Russian billions for the good of Ukraine. If the US won’t, Europe must.

Britain can stand tall again, on our continent and around the world – As a force for good, championing democracy, human rights and the rule of law. It will be no small task: the Conservatives have trashed our reputation and undermine the rule of law so badly.

But we Liberal Democrats are internationalists to our core. We know that our country is at its best when it is open and outward-looking. We know that – whether it’s war or a pandemic or rising sea levels – events beyond Britain’s borders are a threat to Britain here at home. 

And there’s one set of events that have been weighing particularly heavily, these past few months. The horrifying conflict in the Middle East. And the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Gaza.

I visited Israel and Palestine three weeks ago. 

I met Israeli citizens, still visibly traumatised by the events of October the seventh. I met Itzik – a father waiting for news of his two sons, Yair and Eitan, who were taken hostage by Hamas terrorists. And I met Palestinians, deeply traumatised by the continuing carnage in Gaza.

I held a baby in a hospital in East Jerusalem, being cared for along with her two baby sisters. Triplets. And heard from the nurses how their mother had been forced back into Gaza, straight after giving birth, and hasn’t been allowed a permit to visit since then. A mother, forced to leave her babies in those crucial early days. And kept apart from them for months by this terrible war.

So I urge the Prime Minister today: make it a diplomatic priority to let that mother – and so many others like her – come back to her babies where she belongs.

For us – moved to tears as we watch the brave journalists trying to report all this – it’s vital we try to understand. Understand how both peoples have experienced the last few months. Understand how both peoples have been so badly let down by their political leaders, for so many years.

My visit confirmed my pride in how our party has responded to this crisis. And pride in the way that Layla has spoken so insightfully and understood both peoples. As a daughter of Palestine. With family in Gaza.

And Liberal Democrats, we have not given in to the siren song of easy answers. We have not sought to divide people further. We have not indulged in petty political game-playing. Instead we have stood consistently – as Liberal Democrats always have – for international law, humanitarianism and understanding.

For months now, we have been calling for an immediate, bilateral ceasefire. To put an end to the appalling human suffering and tragedy in Gaza, and get those hostages home to their families. Reunite Yair and Eitan with their dad. And reunite those triplets with their mum.

A real ceasefire that sets us on the path, finally, to a lasting peace. A two-state solution, starting with the UK immediately recognising an independent Palestinian state. Because only through diplomacy can we defeat the Hamas terrorists and their evil ideology,

And only with a lasting peace can we make sure that Israeli and Palestinian children – both – grow up free of the horrifying cycle of violence that has endured for so long. Of course, the UK alone cannot make that happen.

But if we stand tall in the world once again…If we rebuild the trust and alliances that make us strong…If we recognise the reality of today’s unstable world, and our role in it…We can be a force for good in Gaza. And a force for peace in the Middle East.

We can transform Britain’s standing in the world. But we can only lead beyond our borders if we also live up to our values here at home. And that means zero tolerance – zero tolerance – for the appalling, devastating rise of antisemitism and Islamophobia we have seen since October the seventh. Threatening to tear our communities apart. We cannot let that happen. There is no place for it in our party. There is no place for it in our country. There is no place for it anywhere.

So Liberal Democrats will always stand up to those who spread hate and preach division. And we will always strive with our words and our deeds to bring people together, to build understanding, and to reflect the dignity and common humanity of all people, everywhere. That really shouldn’t be a radical thing to say. But sadly in today’s political climate it is.

Conference, this has not been an easy time for our country or our world. Watching the news, reading the paper, it can be hard to hope right now. But change is coming. Hope is on the horizon. We will get past the challenges of today and reach the brighter future that lies ahead.

The real change we seek is possible. We can make it happen. As long as we have more Liberal Democrats, strong in the next Parliament. And I know we can do it. Because we’ve done it before.

Back in nineteen ninety-seven. With those fifty-six votes. We won. We got the Conservatives out. And we changed people’s lives.

And we can do it again now. We can make this a once-in-a-generation election. We can elect many more brilliant Liberal Democrat MPs, to fight and win the case for bold political reform. The real change we need to transform our country for good – To fix the health crisis, the cost-of-living crisis, the sewage crisis – and give people the fair deal they deserve.

That’s why we are all here, isn’t it? To change people’s lives for the better. That’s what Liberal Democrats are doing right now, right across the country.

Like our amazing Caroline Pidgeon, who has spent the last sixteen years holding Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan to account on the London Assembly. And who served on Southwark Council for a decade before that. A quarter of a century of elected public service to London and to our party. Thank you, Caroline.

And Ruth Dombey, who is stepping down as leader of Sutton Council after twelve years of remarkable service leading her community. The London Cancer Hub that Ruth brought to Sutton is Europe’s number one centre for research and treatment. That alone is a legacy to be extremely proud of.

And there are brilliant Liberal Democrat councillors like Ruth in every part of the country. Six hundred more of you, thanks to our incredible local election results of the last two years –

And I’m looking forward to seeing many more of you elected this May. And we can do it at the general election too – whenever Rishi finally grants it.

Together we have built what I firmly believe is the strongest campaigning force in British politics. We showed what we can do in Chesham and Amersham. And then we showed it again in North Shropshire. Again in Tiverton and Honiton. And again in Somerton and Frome. We elected four fantastic local champions who are already making a difference every day for their constituents. Four brilliant Liberal Democrat MPs.

And now we can do it again. In so many parts of the country, only we can beat the Conservatives. And we must. So Liberal Democrats, let’s get to work. Let’s get out and knock on five million doors. Five million knocks to bring the Blue Wall tumbling down. And send more brilliant Liberal Democrats to Parliament.

From Shetland to St Ives and everywhere in between. We must show people that they don’t have to settle for the status quo.

We can change the system. We can give people real hope. We can deliver a fair deal.

Smash the Blue Wall. Kick out the Conservatives. 

And transform our country for good!

Ed Davey, Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Spring 2023 Conference speech