Britain must “tear down the Conservatives’ trade barriers” with Europe if the economy is to prosper again, the Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey has warned.
In a keynote address to the party’s conference in York, Sir Ed called Brexit the “elephant in the room” of UK politics as he attacked the Tories and Labour who “daren’t even whisper its name”.
“So let me shout it, yet again. If you want to boost our economy, you have to repair our broken relationship with Europe,” he said.
“Conference, you don’t need me to tell you what a disaster the Conservatives’ botched deal with Europe has been for our country.”
Sir Ed said the Lib Dems “are the only ones with a real plan to fix Britain’s trade” and vowed to “tear down the Conservatives’ trade barriers, rip up their red tape and rebuild the ties of trust and friendship with our European neighbours”.
The speech did not outline any new policies, but focused on the party’s main arguments ahead of the local elections in May and then the general election next year.
The Lib Dems are hoping to make gains in Tory-held seats across the south of England by targeting voters disillusioned with sleaze, party in-fighting and the Conservatives’ move to the right.
Part of the strategy will be to appeal to Labour voters to lend their support in “blue-wall” areas where the Lib Dems are the main challengers by stressing the liberal and internationalist credentials of a party some still associate with the Cameron-Clegg coalition days.
Sir Ed called the Tories “a bunch of mutinous pirates” more interested in arguing over their own self-advancement than helping the British people.
Are the Liberal Democrats back on the up?
“When Britain needed integrity, they gave us Boris Johnson,” he said.
“When our country needed wise leadership, they gave us Liz Truss. When people needed change, they gave us more of the same with Rishi Sunak.
“When we needed a gallant crew on the bridge to steer our Great British ship through choppy waters, we’ve instead had a bunch of mutinous pirates, only interested in who got to wear the captain’s hat. We needed Hornblower. They gave us Pugwash.”
Water sewage is another key battleground for the Lib Dems and in his conference speech, Sir Ed warned that Rishi Sunak will lose “dozens of seats” at the next general election if he fails to stop it being pumped into rivers.
He called the government’s latest asylum plans “appalling” and argued foreign aid spending should be returned to the 0.7% of GDP benchmark immediately.
Sir Ed also talked about the Lid Dem’s support to ditch the first-past-the-post voting system, saying “our zeal for Proportional Representation remains undimmed today”.
The Lib Dems won three by-elections in Tory areas last year, though they trail behind the Conservatives in national polls.
Sunday’s event was Sir Ed’s first speech to a full conference since taking over as party leader in 2020, with the previous one called due to COVID then the Queen’s funeral.