Ed Davey profile: The part-time carer who could bring the Lib Dems in from the cold

Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader
'Very few politicians can pull stunts off like Ed Davey can,' says one of his friends - EDDIE MULHOLLAND

It’s not easy being the leader of the Liberal Democrats. Since the party’s near wipeout in 2015 following its ill-fated coalition deal with the Conservatives, three successors to Sir Nick Clegg have come and gone.

First came Tim Farron, who found himself brought down by outrage, torn between his Christian faith and responsibilities as leader. Then, following a stint by Sir Vince Cable, Jo Swinson lost her parliamentary seat after just six months in charge.

However, the Lib Dems are now set to win at least 50 seats at the general election, according to Savanta polling.

Now, with Sir Ed Davey, the Lib Dems might have found a formula that works, combining cheesy publicity stunts with the earnestness of a man who, while not the biggest of Westminster’s personalities, is being shown engaging in personal struggles that aides believe give him a rare common touch.

As Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives head towards major losses tomorrow, the Lib Dems are increasingly hoping that Sir Ed is the man who will bring them in from the cold after almost a decade on the sidelines - and offer an alternative to voters sick of the party in power but wary of voting for the opposition.

Will his combination of earnestness and gimmickry help him succeed where his predecessors have so spectacularly failed?

A recent Lib Dem election broadcast showed that every morning at 6am, Sir Ed gets up to care for his severely disabled child, John. Before each busy day in Westminster, the Lib Dems leader wakes him up, washes him, massages him – in his own words, “does the lot”.

Back in the 1970s, when he was a teenager, Sir Ed spent three years looking after his mother who died of secondary bone cancer. Later he helped care for the grandmother who brought him up. In other words, caring has been an overwhelming theme of his life – perhaps even more than politics.

While it could look to the outsider that he had led a charmed political life – moving seamlessly from a course in PPE at Oxford to a senior position under Paddy Ashdown and the inevitable seat in south-west London – his difficult upbringing shows that was not the case.

Sir Ed Davey with his son John
Sir Ed with his disabled son John - INEWS

He experienced the death of his father at the age of four and that of his mother nine years later, leaving him an orphan at the age of just 15.

According to his best man Johnny Oates: “He was deeply affected by his personal experience growing up losing his father and mother. He has had this caring role throughout his life, and that has shaped him. It gave him an understanding that a lot of people live tough lives and heroic lives.

“He’s not a politician who had an easy ride: he understands the difficulty and hardships that millions go through. It really grounds him.”

Edward Jonathan Davey was born on Christmas Day in 1965, the youngest of three brothers. He did not grow up in privilege. His maternal grandparents had been in domestic service, and his father John was from a mining family. John trained as a lawyer in Mansfield, where they lived. But he died of Hodgkin’s disease at the age of only 37.

Sir Ed, aged just four, was left with one memory of his father. He remembers being picked up from nursery, and his father – already unwell – sitting in the back seat of the car swaddled in a large coat. And that is it. His father sent him and his two brothers a letter for them to read when they were older, something Sir Ed cherishes. It urged them to work as hard as they could and to look after their mother. It was advice that Sir Ed took on board.

The family moved into a bungalow. But just five years later, tragedy struck again. Sir Ed’s mother Nina was diagnosed with breast cancer, and later with secondary bone cancer. With his brother, he nursed his mother for three years, the last 18 months of which she was entirely bedridden. Sir Ed remembers giving her morphine in a cup to dull the pain.

When she eventually died, aged 46, Sir Ed was by her side – in his school uniform. When Sir Ed returned to classes, the headteacher tactlessly told him they had never before had “orphans” at the school. He moved in with his grandmother, with whom he became very close.

Mr Oates says: “I did talk to him about his mother, but it was not something he made a thing about. It was never ‘poor me’ at all. It was just a reminder to him of the importance that people are treated properly.”

Ruth Quinn, who met Sir Ed at university, says the tragedy eventually had a positive effect. “He never really talked about his father dying as he was very young when that happened,” she says. “But I heard an awful lot about his mother and grandmother. Something happened to Edward after his mother died: he knew he had to make a commitment to his own life, and he turned his grief into a real sense of commitment. Because of his loss and suffering, he became a very caring man who listens to people; he respects them.”

Sir Ed Davey
Sir Ed for the Liberal Democrats in 2005 - GETTY

For a start, it made him concentrate on his studies. Sir Ed was a pupil at Nottingham High School, where Ken Clarke and Ed Balls had also been. Mr Balls was in the year below him, and Sir Ed once lent him his history notes, which he never got back. He was not particularly into politics at school, although he was a member of the debating society. Sport was also a passion; particularly rugby and tennis.

He could have flunked his exams after his mother died, but he threw himself into them. He also became very independent, going backpacking around Europe with two friends at the age of 16, and taking a gap year after sixth form at a time when time out before university was rare. All his hard work paid off and he gained a place at Oxford University, studying PPE (philosophy, politics and economics). But he had to work hard to get there.

Ms Quinn met Sir Ed on their first day at Jesus College. “We connected because we had both come back from living in Spain,” she says. “We could both speak Spanish; my Spanish is better than his though. We’ve stayed friends ever since and supported each other in our lives. We laugh together, we take the p--- out of each other, we listen to the same music. I’m his daughter’s godmother, and we’ve been away on holiday a couple of times as a family. I’m not a politician, so I’m not there to talk politics with him. We talk about life and family.”

It was at Oxford in the late 80s that Sir Ed first became hooked on politics, although his career could have taken a completely different turn. He read a book called Seeing Green by Jonathan Porritt, which led him to join Green Action and campaign on environmental issues. As Mr Oates recalls: “He was very motivated by environmental issues and at Oxford, I think he considered joining the Green Party – but as an economist he did not think too much of their economic theories. But the green side of things was a passionate strain through his life and a driving force.”

Sir Ed got involved in the anti-apartheid movement and a group called Tactical Vote whose aim was to try to defeat the Tories by supporting whichever party was best placed in each seat. Despite this, Margaret Thatcher still won with a majority of more than 100 in 1987.

What was missing was any connection with the party which he would eventually lead.

In 1988, when he left university, they were at their lowest ebb: the SDP-Liberal Alliance had gone backwards in the previous year’s election and were now going through the fraught process of a merger.

First called the Social and Liberal Democrats (leading to the nickname Salad) and boasting two joint leaders, they later changed their name to the Democrats and a year later to the Liberal Democrats. By now they had a new leader called Paddy Ashdown, and he advertised for an economics adviser. Sir Ed applied and was successful.

Baroness Grender, who has worked alongside him in the party for years, says it was his environmental activism combined with his understanding of economics which explained why he joined the party. “He started out in the party with a radical agenda on the environment,” she said. “The fire in his belly was on the environment and climate, but he came with the knowhow of an economist.”

Alan Beith, Emma Nicholson, Ed Davey, Paddy Ashdown and Menzies Campbell, at the 1997 Liberal Democrats Conference
Alan Beith, Emma Nicholson, Sir Ed, Paddy Ashdown and Menzies Campbell, at the 1997 Liberal Democrats Conference - BRIAN SMITH

Colleagues say Mr Ashdown taught him that policies and bookishness were not enough to succeed: he had to think about campaigning and getting to know local communities as a way to win in elections. And the more he campaigned, the more he liked it. During the 1992 campaign, he stood out as “bright and sparky”. “He enjoyed the work but inevitably at that time he enjoyed the parties as well,” says Lady Grender. “He became known for his regular parties at his flat in Earlsfield.”

As the 1997 election loomed, he put himself forward for the Twickenham seat but lost out marginally to Sir Vince. The next vacancy to come up was Kingston and Surbiton, also in south-west London. It was not seen as a winnable seat, but as the party was doing well in by-elections he thought he would give it a go.

Lady Grender recalls: “The selection was at my parents’ house in Kingston, and everyone was deeply impressed.”

Mr Oates was a local councillor in Kingston and was bowled over when he first met Sir Ed. “He came to help out in a council by-election and he had lots of good ideas,” he says. “I was going to support a local councillor to stand for the parliamentary seat, but I changed my mind. When he first asked me to be his agent I said no because it was an unwinnable seat. But he came up with a plan of action to win it, so I eventually said yes. He was great at pulling people together so we had a great team.”

On election night in 1997, Mr Oates and his team were monitoring the counting and it looked like he had succeeded in reducing the majority from a notional 15,000 (the seat had new boundaries) to 2,000.

“Ed was a little bit crestfallen not to have won. The first thing he did was to ring his grandmother to tell her to go to bed.” But later it became clear that the result was much closer.

“My father was the rector of St Brides, and when the third recount happened he went outside to pray. We ended up winning by 56 votes. It was all down to Ed’s hard work.”

With such a slim majority, Sir Ed had to put immediate political ambitions aside and concentrate on holding his seat. He founded the 56 Club, which raised money to help him get a larger majority next time.

“He was absolutely determined that he was not going to be a one-term MP,” said Ms Quinn. “He worked incredibly hard, and in 2001 he won by more than 15,000. He had turned around a seat which had never been anything other than Tory, and established himself as Mr Kingston.”

Sir Ed Davey and Jeremy Hunt in 2012
Sir Ed, then energy and climate change secretary with Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary at the time, in 2012 - STEVE BACK

Two years later he helped change history for the better by moving a backbench amendment to repeal Section 28, which outlawed the promotion of homosexuality in schools.

It was around this time that he met Emily Gasson at a Lib Dem working group on housing. The lawyer was a well-known party activist, having stood unsuccessfully for Parliament herself.

The pair were introduced by historian Conrad Russell, the son of philosopher Bertrand and the descendent of reforming Whig prime minister John Russell.

They married in 2005, and Mr Oates was his best man. “That was a really special day, a wonderful wedding,” he says. “I had the job of wheeling his grandmother from the church to the reception, but we had to take shelter from a downpour in a petrol station. She was a fantastic woman, a big smoker, and she was about to get a cigarette out. I had to stop her, but she wasn’t very impressed.”

The pair had two children, a boy and a girl, but it soon became clear that John was severely disabled and needed 24-hour care. The precise nature of the disability is undiagnosed. Although he can talk a bit, he struggles to walk without help.

A friend says: “Not a lot of people in politics have these sorts of responsibilities. It means Sir Ed’s family life is complicated. If a carer is ill, or the teacher does not come in, life can be very complicated for him and his wife, who has MS.”

“Their resilience is just remarkable,” says Ms Quinn. “John is a gem; I adore him, he is very, very funny and very, very hard work. Ed is incredible with him, and he has to do very basic caring work at times. People might think he is in an ivory tower, but he knows what care means and it gives him an insight into what it is like to live with caring responsibilities. If that makes him sound a saint, he isn’t – but they struggle with these commitments and their house is chaos. Well, it looks like chaos but it is actually highly organised.”

Sir Ed Davey and his wife Emily Gasson
Sir Ed and his wife Emily Gasson - YUI MOK/PA

Meanwhile, the political ground was shifting – in the wake of the Iraq War, opposed by the Lib Dems, Tony Blair was no longer the political colossus he had been.

The party increased its number of seats at every election, and at its highest point under Charles Kennedy in 2005, they had more than 50. At this point Sir Ed began to take on more senior roles, acting successively as the party spokesman on education, trade and foreign affairs.

He also acted as chief of staff for the ill-fated leader Menzies Campbell. Sir Ed diverged from many of his colleagues by opposing Labour’s measure to ban smoking in pubs and restaurants.

It was in 2010 that everything changed, and the Lib Dems finally got the chance to serve for the first time since the Second World War when the then leader Nick Clegg entered into coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives.

At first, Sir Ed was a junior business minister, in charge of the Post Office – a seemingly minor role which only came to prominence about a decade later. What is certain is that Sir Ed did not properly investigate claims that the botched Horizon software had led to the wrongful conviction of hundreds of sub-postmasters.

Post Office scandal

He did indeed agree to meet the lead campaigner Alan Bates – the only minister to do so – but was too ready to believe the Post Office when they told him there was no problem.

“The root problem of the Post Office scandal is that the system doesn’t work when people lie,” says a friend.

“He met Alan Bates and listened, took the concerns to the Post Office, and their assurances were categorical. Whether it’s contaminated blood, Hillsborough or the Post Office scandal, when people in senior positions lie, it’s really difficult.”

Two years later, Sir Ed entered the Cabinet as climate change secretary: an ideal job for him, combining his party affiliation with his youthful green activism.

“As secretary of state it was really evident he was a really effective minister,” says Mr Oates. “He brought down the cost of renewable energy and stood firm against George Osborne, the Tory chancellor, who was hostile to the green agenda. He was a very tough negotiator.”

He sees his main success as locking in offshore wind contracts so tightly that Mr Osborne could not remove them after the Coalition ended in 2015.

That election was a disaster for the Lib Dems, with Sir Ed among dozens who lost their seats. “A lot of MPs disappeared off the scene after 2015, but Ed was out there campaigning at a council by-election in Kingston,” recalls Mr Oates.

During his wilderness years, Sir Ed took on consultancy work and spent time with his family. His political career apparently over, he even accepted a knighthood in the 2016 New Year’s Honours.

“It was for political service and he was proud to receive it,” said Mr Oates. “He’s not one to lord it over people because of his background: he doesn’t demand people bow down to him as a knight of the realm. I don’t call him Sir Ed.”

Sir Ed Davey with his knighthood
Sir Ed was knighted in the 2016 New Year's Honours List for 'political and public service' - EDDIE MULHOLLAND

However, his hard work in his constituency meant he was well-placed to take it back when Theresa May called her ill-fated election in 2017.

Given a second crack at the whip, Sir Ed was determined not to let chances pass him by. He stood as party leader, losing to Jo Swinson. After she lost her seat in 2019, he tried again and won.

“He’s a leader alright,” says Ms Quinn. “Ever since I’ve known him he’s been a leader, from JCR (junior common room) president at Jesus, to now. He is good at organisation. He sees politics as the best option if he wants to make a big difference.”

Following in the footsteps of Mr Ashdown, Sir Ed has concentrated on campaigning and winning by-elections. He restored the party’s full-time campaigning team to its full complement of 25 staff, as it had stood before 2010.

“He always had very strong convictions on politics, especially green politics and social care,” says Mr Oates. “He has always shown an understanding of macropolitics but also the politics of how you win elections – probably there has not been a leader since Paddy Ashdown who understands the importance of both. When he became leader he had a small number of MPs, and his job was to get credibility back for the party, as well as attention in the media. The only way to do that is to start winning again. He’s really focused on that, and that is why we have had these stunning by-election results.”

And Sir Ed throws himself into the campaigns: friends say he much prefers knocking on doors than hanging around in Westminster waiting for votes. Lady Grender says: “He and Paddy had a close friendship, and he often thinks back to the strategy that Paddy put in place in 1996: to seek winning seats above improving the share of the vote. His understanding of grassroots campaigning comes from that.”

Sir Ed attempts to stroke Mikee the cat
Sir Ed attempts to stroke Mikee the cat after while canvassing ahead of the 2022 local election - DAN KITWOOD/GETTY

He is said to be excellent at getting local teams fired up and has developed a trademark for silly stunts to mark by-election wins, such as breaking a huge blue wall with a tiny orange hammer. “He’s game for all these stunts which have become a bit of a watchword of his,” says Mr Oates. “He’s prepared to do things like that: it might seem cheesy but it gets the picture on the front page or on the Ten O’Clock News.”

Lady Grender agrees. “Very few politicians can pull stunts off like Ed can. It’s got to be done with humour and a slight self-mockery. You have to lean into the fun, a bit like embarrassing dad dancing.”

Now, Sir Ed faces his first election campaign as leader – the toughest test a party leader can face. Yet, with all his caring responsibilities, he inevitably has a tougher job than others.

Lady Grender, however, is certain he can thrive, with the help of his wife. “How much is one person capable of dealing with while also being a party leader?” she asks. “What is impressive is Emily’s determination that Ed will pursue politics in spite of what many people would think are insurmountable challenges. They take it in their stride, and have a level of grit and determination that defies gravity.”