Ah, the Orange Book. A 300-page collection of political essays open to public consumption and the Holy Bible for some modern Liberal Democrats. Published in 2004 with the aim of making the Liberal Democrats more… well… liberal, ‘Orange Bookers’ as they are known are most notorious for being the vast majority of the Liberal Democrats who went into coalition government with the Conservatives in 2010. Among their number are controversial names like Nick Clegg and Sir Vince Cable.
Today, there's a new Lib Dem leader in town. Sir Ed Davey recently defeated the centre-left candidate Layla Moran with about 65% of the vote. Anyone who has followed Davey closely knows that he is very fond of the Orange Book; in fact, he wrote the first section of it, penning his thoughts on decentralisation and empowering local government. However, the Liberal Democrats have not had an ‘Orange Booker’ in charge since Clegg in 2015 (overlooking Sir Vince Cable’s brief stint as leader). The recent general elections have been fought by frontmen and women from other sections of the party, such as Tim Farron and Jo Swinson. In fact, Davey is the last ‘Orange Booker’ still standing as an MP. Can the remaining ‘Orange Book’ Liberal save the party?
So, what are Davey's actual policies? In the Orange Book, he advocates the devolution of more power to local councils. He describes himself as a “strong free trader” and as Energy Secretary in the coalition from 2012-2015, launched market solutions for the energy sector (in where the prices of energy are decided by supply and demand).
How might Davey fare in the years to come?That is a very difficult question to answer, especially as we have not had an ‘Orange Booker’ contest a general election since 2015 and a lot of things have changed since then. Given the relative transience of Lib Dem leaders of late, it is possible that Davey may not even make it that far.
Assuming that Davey does, in fact, contest the next election, his behaviour during the leadership race is a good indicator of what sort of election campaign he intends to run. It seems that under Davey the Liberal Democrats will stay in the centre-right position it has held in recent years, sticking loyally to market economics, as well taking on a new green energy approach in an attempt to swipe votes from the Greens, who they are neck-and-neck with in around 20-30% of polls.
In terms of the Lib Dems' tumbling poll numbers, the coronavirus crisis could either present an opportunity or a threat. The country is currently suffering under unprecedented circumstances, with an incompetent government who are bleeding public support, despite their attempts to claw back popularity with half-price meals.
For the Lib Dems, the entire situation smacks of deja-vu. A crumbling economy, an unpopular prime minister, inefficient cabinet ministers and a party in government haemorrhaging support. All of this gives me flashbacks to 2010. The Lib Dems now have an opportunity to position themselves as the fallback for voters fed up with Tory incompetence but who don't want to jump straight to Labour, much as they did 10 years ago. If done well, the party could start to regain support in the seats it lost in 2015.
However, COVID-19 could be a threat to the Lib Dems. Throughout his time as Acting Leader, Davey has continually supported the lockdown. Although it may seem politically suicidal not to support drastic action during a worldwide pandemic, a Liberal Democrat leader supporting the most illiberal government policy since the Blitz does not do Liberals any favour. One would expect to see Davey, as a Liberal, criticising the government over the lockdown and advocating for alternatives such as better testing or track and trace programmes. As an outspoken advocate for personal freedom, why is Davey staying compliant?
Davey is the last 'Orange Booker' remaining- tantamount to a party relic. We have seen people from both the left and right of Davey fail to replicate the electoral success of the pre-Farron days. However, it is unclear whether Davey is the answer to steadying the ship. Three predecessors have tried and failed.
Yet overall, I am optimistic about Davey's prospects. I suspect while the party is unlikely to perform a miracle in the next general election, it will make modest gains. It may be too early to tell at this point, and we have no idea what could happen in the next 4 years. But once you hit rock bottom, there is only one way to go, right?