Ed Davey calls Tories ‘mutinous pirates’ in speech to Lib Dem conference

<span>Photograph: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

The Conservatives are “a bunch of mutinous pirates” more interested in squabbling over self-advancement than helping the British people, Ed Davey has told the first in-person Liberal Democrat conference since he became leader more than three years ago.

In a speech setting out the party’s main arguments before May’s crucial local elections, and looking ahead to a general election expected next year, Davey focused almost all his fire on a Tory government he said had “reached the end of the road”.

Addressing party members in York, Davey set out no new policies, outlining instead what he called wider ideas of “community politics”, in which proportional representation would help people better shape the decisions that affect them.

The Lib Dems are hoping to make new gains in Conservative-held “blue wall” commuter belt seats in the local elections, and are targeting dozens of similar areas in the general election, aiming to pick off former Tory voters disillusioned by sleaze, the party’s tilt to the right, and the recent conveyor belt of prime ministers.

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Davey, whose party has seen every previous conference since autumn 2019 moved online because of Covid and then the Queen’s funeral, said Conservative infighting meant they had “squandered the hard work and sacrifices of the British people” in recent years.

“When Britain needed integrity, they gave us Boris Johnson,” he said. “When our country needed wise leadership, they gave us Liz Truss. When people needed change, they gave us more of the same with Rishi Sunak.

“When we needed a gallant crew on the bridge to steer our great British ship through choppy waters, we’ve instead had a bunch of mutinous pirates, only interested in who got to wear the captain’s hat. We needed Hornblower. They gave us Pugwash.”

He set out what he called “Davey’s first law of politics”, saying: “You know a government has reached the end of the road when it chooses to pick a fight with Match of the Day.”

The gathering in York comes at a pivotal moment for the party and Davey’s leadership. The Lib Dems won three stunning byelection victories against the Conservatives in 12 months and made significant gains on councils, but remain stuck on about 9% in national polling.

One key test will come in May with local elections in England, where the Lib Dems are defending seats they won in 2019, when Theresa May’s Conservatives were struggling desperately. Despite more than 700 gains then, Lib Dem officials and MPs say the party can win yet more councillors, embedding an election machine into areas they will fight in the general election.

Davey’s main message before the conference was an appeal to Labour votes to lend their support in Conservative-held seats where the Lib Dems are the main challengers, and it was notable that his speech made only a cursory attack on Keir Starmer’s party.

“Labour’s ambitions are hardly much higher,” he said amid a much longer condemnation of Rishi Sunak’s government. “Their only goal seems to be: not as bad as the Conservatives.”

In terms of a positive offering from his party, Davey stressed the need for policies to improve the NHS, particularly ambulance waiting times and access to GPs, regular campaign areas for the Lib Dems, as well as efforts to prevent sewage in waterways.

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.

He called instead for a wider philosophical shift in policies, based around proportional representation and “shifting more power out of the centre in Whitehall, so local decisions are made by and for the people and communities they affect”.

He added: “That commitment to community politics is one of the foundation stones of our party.”