The Liberal Democrat housing drama

Ed Davey suffered a bruising defeat on the conference floor leading some to question his leadership

Ed Davey at the Lib Dem conference
The Liberal Democrat leader was rounded on by the Young Liberals over his desire to scrap housing targets
(Image credit: Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)

The authority of Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey's ship has been dented this week after party members rejected his plans to scrap its national housing target.

Davey had previously announced he wanted to drop a pledge to build 380,000 new homes a year in England in favour of local targets focused on new council or social homes. 

But his plan was "foiled by a group of young activists", Sky News reported, who put forward an amendment after arguing that Davey's policy was "not ambitious enough".

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The Young Liberals ultimately gained the support of the majority of members at the party's national conference in Bournemouth.

The 'prehistory' of the conference 

The last time the Liberal Democrats gathered in Bournemouth for their conference the place was "giddy with excitement", said Stephen Bush in the Financial Times (FT), as "defectors" from both Labour and the Conservatives hoped to reignite the party in 2019.

But the attempt to woo back voters in that year's election proved disastrous, when the party lost seats, including that of their leader, Jo Swinson.

The December 2019 election "is a vital part of what you might call the prehistory of this year's conference", Bush added, as Davey has been determined to "shed and downplay" any policy that could turn off Conservative voters. 

To emphasise his point, the leader "wheeled out" his predecessor Tim Farron, said The Spectator's Steerpike, and he "decried" the housing proposal as "pure Thatcherism".

Farron told the conference the "vague and vacuous" housing targets would not work, as they achieve "naff all". He urged conference to reject the amendment proposed by the Young Liberals.

But he was "booed" by disgruntled members, said the Daily Express, and ultimately "had his microphone cut off having spoken for the maximum duration allowed".  

Bruising defeat

The vote has been a "blow to Davey's authority", said The Guardian, in the "first sign of internal pushback" against the leader's ideas.

For some, it has led to questions about the Lib Dem leader, while others are uncertain what the party stands for, if it cannot agree on key issues.

The party is "being coy about who they really are", said Suzanne Moore for The Telegraph, a tactic that "never plays well in the polls". 

While many are "sick of the two-party system", the notion that the "Lib Dems have nothing to offer" having been so "badly burnt" during their coalition government experience, could well put voters off supporting Davey at the next election.

"You always want to win, but I'm a Liberal Democrat so I'm kind of used to it."

Tim Farron, former Lib Dem leader

What's the plan now?

Although the aim of the Liberal Democrats is to overtake the SNP and reclaim their position as the third largest party in Westminster, it is Davey's refusal to state the party's official position on key issues that has been perplexing for some.

This "hasn't gone unnoticed", said Sky News' Beth Rigby, particularly on Brexit and the question of rejoining the EU.

Davey's future relationship with the Labour Party is equally unclear. He has refused to be drawn on the prospect of a coalition, "trying to squirm out of a tricky answer" when pressed, Rigby added. Even so his "non answer speaks volumes".

Coalition has not been favourable for the party in the past, but the prospect of entering government once again has "whetted the appetites" of the party faithful and those businesses "who have sniffed out a scent of power", said the BBC.

Ultimately, the Liberal Democrats will need to "think about their relationship with Labour", especially as the pair's "non-aggression pact has broken down", The Observer's Andrew Rawnsley stated. If either hopes to be successful, they will need to "kiss, make up and refocus" on their common goal – "removing as many Conservative MPs as possible". 

Victory for Yimbys 

Although housing may not be a policy on which the next election is won or lost, it will continue to be a major talking point amid the cost-of-living crisis.

On this particular issue, "Yimbys beat Nimbys", said Politico. But the party may yet be able to unite around the housing goal and put its internal differences aside. When asked by the political website about the defeat on the conference floor, Farron said: "You always want to win, but I'm a Liberal Democrat so I'm kind of used to it." 

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