Ed Davey’s gameshow approach to election makes a modest splash

<span>Leader of the Liberal Democrats Ed Davey falls into the water during a visit to a water park.</span><span>Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images</span>
Leader of the Liberal Democrats Ed Davey falls into the water during a visit to a water park.Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Ed Davey, the leader of the Lib Dems, has had a busy week. On Monday, he conducted an interview on a spinning teacup in a funfair; on Wednesday, he tumbled into a pool at a Warwickshire water park live on the BBC – then, on Thursday, he was dressed in a linen suit and panama hat in a makeover on ITV’s This Morning.

This gameshow approach to politics is hardly new for Davey or his small party, lying fourth in election polling. A fortnight earlier, Davey fell off a paddle board into Lake Windemere in Cumbria five times in 15 minutes at a campaign event with party colleague Tim Farron.

It was intended to highlight the dangers of sewage being dumped into the lake, though it did not stop the party leader repeatedly falling in. One of the five dunkings, he admitted afterwards, was deliberate – the other four presumably accidental.

Lib Dem insiders argue bluntly that the approach is necessary, because the most serious risk for the party, behind Labour, Conservatives and Nigel Farage’s Reform, is simply not being in the national conversation.

Davey is helped by the fact that falling into water reflects the behaviour of a ‘centrist, cringey, well-meaning dad’

Ayesha Hazarika

Falling into the water or riding in a fairground, they add, grants Davey the right to be heard on other issues, though it helps, with Labour so far ahead, that the party is not burdened with the prospect of forming even part of a government.

Sean Kemp, a Lib Dem head of press during the 2010 election, said that for the party’s leaders, “dignity has to be less important than coverage sometimes”. It is also helpful to keep any journalists in the travelling press pack entertained, he added, because “they are often grumpy, thinking they are not where the story is”.

Nick Clegg, in 2015, when he was deputy prime minister, took reporters zip-lining at Go Ape, the harness riding high on his trousers, at a time when the media desperately wanted to know which party the Lib Dems might go into coalition with. However, the party’s result that year was so poor, the question turned out to be irrelevant.

Such tactics are, of course, not without risk. Again in 2015, Clegg was persuaded to film a version of Carly Rae Jepsen’s I Really Like You in Gravesend, Kent (the original video features actor Tom Hanks lip-syncing). However, it was deemed too bad ever to be released. “Why the fuck did I do that?” Clegg is said to have thought afterwards.

Treating politics like it is not a vat of misery isn’t a bad approach

Tim Farron

But by embracing embarrassment, Davey has, so far, managed to avoid disaster. For now, the more relevant question is whether there is a risk that voters will simply not take the party seriously – even if Davey is willing to discuss the party’s plans to create a Clean Water Authority to replace Ofwat while wearing a helmet and tight wetsuit on a water-park swing.

“I was sceptical about this approach at the beginning,” said Ayesha Hazarika, a broadcaster, Labour peer and former adviser to Ed Miliband. “But, as the stunts have continued, I think the Lib Dems have found their place, in what has been a pretty boring and joyless election campaign.”

Hazarika said that Davey is helped by the fact that falling into water reflects the behaviour of a “centrist, cringey, well-meaning dad”, which Davey, the leader of a middle-of-the-road party, has to be. “It looks like he is living his best life,” she added, creating perhaps a modest halo effect, to soften the party’s image to voters.

For the past nine years, the Lib Dems have been recovering slowly from the impact of their 2010 to 2015 coalition with the Conservatives. The party’s popularity was shattered when Nick Clegg entered government with the Tories, most notably after u-turning on abolishing university tuition fees.

Earlier this year, Davey was forced to apologise for his own role in the Post Office scandal. The party leader, a business minister between 2010 and 2012, said he was “sorry I did not see through the Post Office’s lies”, as it wrongly prosecuted post office operators for mistakes that were in fact down to a faulty IT system.

Related: Liberal Democrats election broadcast shows Ed Davey with disabled son

But Davey’s allies point out that he has also sought to run a policy campaign that at times brings together the centrist with the dad. The party’s first and heavily personalised election broadcast featured Davey at home looking after his disabled teenage son John, and sought to highlight the work of carers.

For some critics, it is all too much. At the beginning of the week, Quentin Letts, the Daily Mail’s sketch writer, wrote viciously that Davey was engaged in “emotively manipulative pieces of saccharine hucksterism”. However, Lib Dem aides say the stunts will continue in a campaign that aims to emphasise modesty over confidence.

This time, the Lib Dems hope to gain 20 or more seats from their existing tally of 15. But memories linger of the party’s last two election campaigns in 2017 and 2019, which began with hopes that they could gain dozens of seats on an anti-Brexit ticket. Each time, progress was minimal.

Tim Farron, the party’s leader in 2017, now wonders if his campaign was too earnest, dominated by Brexit, and too fearful of making a mistake. “Arguably, I should have followed the Ed Davey lead. I know falling off a paddleboard doesn’t make things better, but treating politics like it is not a vat of misery isn’t a bad approach.”