Lib Dem leader showed he is the wrong man for the job

Published by The i paper (8th January, 2024)

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey has made a busy start to 2024 with a general election looming. First came a new year message to voters, insisting only his party as “agents of change” could solve the deep problems bedevilling Britain. His words spoke rightly of citizens “feeling powerless” in a system that “makes it impossible to hold those in power properly to account” and “rewards short-term self-interest.”

Then, he showed that self-declared desire to “fight for a fair deal” with a rather desperate attempt to grab attention by driving a “Tory Removal Service” poster van through seats in Surrey held by senior ministers such as Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt.

Unfortunately, his words and stunt could not have felt more hollow since coinciding with Mr Bates vs the Post Office,  a powerful television drama that exposes Davey’s central role in a shocking national scandal. The horrifying behaviour of an almost sacred institution as it devastated the lives of thousands of sub-postmasters by ignoring, then covering up, failures in its accounting software was a monstrous abuse of corporate and state power. It led to bankruptcies, suicides and hundreds of wrongful criminal convictions. The agonies and stunned disbelief of decent people in a Kafkaesque nightmare are brilliantly brought home by the ITV show.

It is shameful that it has taken so long – and a television drama – to turn up the heat on this cruel scandal. Suddenly the prime minister Rishi Sunak says there will be a review of prosecutions after an “appalling miscarriage of justice” and there are calls to strip former boss turned priest Paula Vennells of her CBE. This feels a rather cosmetic move when people responsible should end up behind bars themselves and even their successors as Post Office chiefs, fully cognisant of the scale of the scandal, carried on collecting big bonuses while dragging out a complex compensation process that inflicted fresh misery on ageing victims.

These sordid events underscore many of those fine words in the Liberal Democrat leader’s new year message about a lack of accountability in a broken system. They should be at the heart of campaigning for a party rooted in civil rights and liberty, one supposedly suspicious of state power.

Bear in mind this Post Office horror story bears disturbing echoes of other cases of state wrongdoing that I have campaigned against for more than a decade with the disclosures of callous officials, disempowered citizens and disinterested politicians: the infected blood scandal that killed hundreds of haemophiliacs; the NHS safety scandals involving women or vulnerable patients; the locking up of people with autism and learning disabilities in psychiatric hellholes due to dearth of community support.

All of these scandals taking place in plain sight could have been solved far sooner if politicians showed compassion, reacted faster and trusted whistleblowers, thereby saving pain and public money. Yet as one of those postmasters falsely prosecuted for fraud told the BBC, they were “normal people” who found themselves powerless when caught in the cogs of uncaring state machinery.

The problem for Davey is that he was among those inept politicians who swept aside their complaints, placing more weight on the smooth words of powerful bosses than despairing pleas from ordinary citizens.

Davey served as postal affairs minister in the coalition government between 2010 and 2012 as the Horizon IT software problems came into sharp focus. Alan Bates, the wonderfully-determined character portrayed by Toby Jones in ITV’s drama, told the Sunday Times how postmasters fighting for justice had hoped for more support after a change in government, so he wrote at least five times to the minister asking for his intervention and warning that taxpayers could face huge “financial liability.” His requests were brushed aside; Bates said he found one 121-word response – sweeping away the suggestion of a meeting on the basis it would not serve “any useful purpose” – to be “offensive.”

Needless to say, Davey is now blaming others for his failure to do his job properly and his dismissive attitude to victims of an injustice that encompasses the biggest single series of wrongful convictions in British legal history.

Ministers from all parties were misled by Post Office managers, he claims, bleating how they sought to stop him talking to campaigners although admitting he should have asked “tougher questions.” The Liberal Democrat leader says he did finally meet Bates, the first postal affairs minister to hold such a meeting since campaigners began pressing for talks in 2003 – and even has the gall to urge the current crop of government ministers to clear up the mess.

Davey is not to blame for this scandal. Many others deserve far greater opprobrium. But far from being an agent of change, the Liberal Democrat leader stands before the electorate as a symbol of political complacency and grim state inertia exposed by tragic events, leaving him critically wounded as his party prepares for electoral battle. How on earth can he convince voters – many deeply sceptical over persistent state ineptitude and the self-serving games seen at Westminster – that he is on their side? Let alone offer them faith that he has found the sudden fortitude and wisdom to tackle intractable problems after he failed to tackle such a grotesque scandal?

He has performed competently, if over-cautiously, as leader of the country’s fourth-biggest party, steadying their ship after three predecessors in four years struggled through choppy waters of post-coalition collapse and Brexit. It gives no pleasure to demand Davey’s head when he is a politician who speaks from profound personal experience about our nation’s urgent need for a functioning care system.

But he should quit if his party really wants to stand up for liberal values, handing over to his deputy Daisy Cooper. Like it or not, his own words in that new year message about broken politics, systemic injustice, powerless citizens and lack of accountability underscore why he is the wrong man for the job.

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