Before we get to the election, Lib Dems need to raise their sights and up their game

<span>Photograph: Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

If I remember correctly, the Lib Dem logo is supposed to represent the “bird of liberty”. Seen from the angle of a twitchy Tory MP, it resembles a yellow vulture. The thing the Lib Dems have excelled at is swooping down when opportunity presents itself to stick their beaks into the rotting carcass of the Conservative party.

They’ve gobbled up four Tory parliamentary seats at byelections during Sir Ed Davey’s time as leader and gained more than 600 council seats, the vast majority of them at the expense of the Conservatives. This haul of Tory carrion is a cause of self-congratulation at the Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth. It is also a source of encouragement that they can remove more Tory MPs at the general election, the task that Sir Ed describes as his “main job”. The Lib Dems are less keen to think about their rating in the opinion polls. For the past 12 months, they’ve been bobbling along at a consistently underwhelming nine to 12 points. Haven’t we done well, they are saying to one another at the gathering on the south coast. A more ambitious party would be asking itself: why are we not doing better?

Sir Ed is a more capable communicator today than he was when he became leader. A policy wonk at heart, he has taken lessons in how to talk the language of retail politics and endeavoured to get his voice heard in a national conversation dominated by the Conservatives and Labour. Despite these efforts, for many voters he is still Ed Who? When I put this to people on his team, they respond with resigned shrugs that being ignored most of the time is in the job description of being Lib Dem leader and that will change only once the election is under way and the rules oblige broadcasters to give them more airtime.

This takes the risk that they will head into the contest with few people knowing what a Lib Dem vote is for. Sir Ed could do worse than emulate the example set by his mentor, the late Paddy Ashdown, who led the party to a breakthrough general election result in 1997. The Ashdown method was to take distinctive stances and promote them with attention-grabbing language. His eye-catchers included a penny on income tax to improve schools. Charles Kennedy differentiated the party from Labour and the Tories by opposing the Iraq war. Under Nick Clegg, the vow to oppose any increases to student tuition fees armed the Lib Dems with a unique selling proposition. This worked in their favour at the 2010 election and then worked very much not in their favour when they betrayed that pledge.

Imitation is not a form of flattery for the Lib Dems. It is a source of frustration to be an ideas bank that is regularly robbed by the bigger two

I don’t recommend the Lib Dems go into the election repeating that mistake by making promises that their leadership don’t really believe in. I do suggest that they need to make some issues their own. To be fair, they have tried. When the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent energy prices soaring, the Lib Dems were ahead of their blue and red rivals in advocating a windfall tax on the bloated profits of the hydrocarbon majors. Only to see Labour then grab that initiative and the Tories implement a version of it. The Lib Dems were ahead of the other two in calling for a cap on energy bills. Only for Labour to then promote that plan as its own and the Tories to introduce a limit. Imitation is not a form of flattery for the Lib Dems. It is a source of frustration to be an ideas bank that is regularly robbed by the bigger two.

That doesn’t mean they should give up on seizing chances to be attractively distinctive. Rishi Sunak has just gifted them a juicy opportunity by backtracking on net zero policies. In a single statement lasting less than an hour, the Tory leader stuffed many of his party’s previous commitments into the waste disposal; enraged environmental campaigners; aggravated carmakers, the renewable energy industry and the financial sector; and split his party. Labour will try to exploit this, but Sir Keir Starmer’s party has divisions of its own on the subject. The Lib Dems have a vote-rich opportunity to promote themselves as the only one of the three treating the scale and the urgency of the climate crisis with the seriousness that the threat deserves. They are the challenger party in 80 Conservative-held seats, virtually all of them in the relatively affluent south of England. Here you will find many Tory MPs who are deeply troubled by Mr Sunak’s U-turns. Their seats contain a lot of people who supported the Tories in 2019 and are now disgusted by degraded environments and animated by the climate crisis. The fear among endangered Conservative MPs is that their leader has made these potential switchers even more biddable by the Lib Dems. Sir Ed’s imperative is to prove that those Tory MPs are right to be scared.

Brexit is a trickier one. In contrast to the Conservatives and Labour, it is Lib Dem policy that the UK should put itself on a path to rejoin the EU. Sir Ed is awfully quiet about this and what they see as his timidity distresses some in his party. His caution is informed by haunting memories of the 2019 election when the Lib Dems thought they were on to a winner by marketing themselves as the party that would overturn Brexit only for it to go splat on their face. Jo Swinson, Sir Ed’s predecessor as leader, lost her seat and the voters sent a meagre total of just 11 Lib Dem MPs to parliament. Even though public opinion has shifted significantly, Sir Ed remains highly wary of making a big thing of Brexit. Some of the seats the Lib Dems are seeking to hold or target, such as Richmond Park in south-west London and Esher and Walton in Surrey, are “the most remainy in the universe”, in the words of one Lib Dem strategist. They calculate that campaigning to rejoin the EU will not make much difference to the Lib Dem vote in these places. But it might hurt their chances of taking Brexity seats or holding ones they already possess, including their byelection gains of North Shropshire and in the west country. Those looking to Sir Ed to speak more boldly about reversing Brexit are going to be disappointed.

As well as trying to take ownership of some defining causes, the Lib Dems need to think about their relationship with Labour

One of the causes that he does emphasise is more support for carers. Here he should turn up the volume as high as he can. The most recent census revealed that there are 5 million unpaid carers in England and Wales. They will not feature near the top of the election agendas of either the Tories or Labour. This is an excellent cause for the Lib Dems to champion. When Sir Ed talks about the challenges facing carers, he knows of what he speaks. His dad died when he was four years old and in his teens he nursed his mum, Nina, when she fell terminally ill. His wife, Emily, has multiple sclerosis. His teenage son, John, has a severe neurological disorder. Friends express admiring amazement that he manages to combine his family responsibilities with being a party leader. “I don’t know how he does it,” says one. His life experiences make him compelling on the subject of carers. According to one of his parliamentary colleagues: “It resonates with a lot of people who are struggling in the shadows.”

As well as trying to take ownership of some defining causes, the Lib Dems need to think about their relationship with Labour. Until recently, the two parties were playing together very nicely. Sir Ed and Sir Keir didn’t have a cross word to say about each other. They treated the Tories as a common enemy and had an unspoken agreement that they wouldn’t waste resources competing in seats where the other party was better placed to beat the Conservatives. That non-aggression pact has broken down, and very badly, in the Mid-Bedfordshire byelection triggered by the departure of Nadine Dorries. Both thinking they have a chance of taking the seat, neither has been prepared to give the other a free run. Labour are accusing the Lib Dems of running a “feral” campaign against their candidate and threatening to go to the police with allegations of breaches of electoral law. The Lib Dems retort that it is “desperate” Labour who are the dirty tricksters. The rightwing media is loving this ugly spat. If a split opposition vote enables the Tories to hang on to the seat, there will be a lot of rancour and recriminations.

And then they will need to kiss, make up and refocus on what matters most to both parties, which is removing as many Conservative MPs as possible.

• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer