The phrase “of course, I regret… ” is a locution deployed by politicians when all other means of avoiding the phrase “I’m sorry” are exhausted. It is a choice chain of words: the “of course” shows the politician both as accepting, reflective but certain; the “I regret” implies that while some wrongdoing has occurred, the politician under question is unwilling to accept responsibility for it.
Tellingly, “Of course, I regret… ” was Ed Davey’s chosen defence in his first in-depth interview of 2024 with ITV News yesterday. Despite being presented with a series of opportunities to apologise for his part in the Post Office scandal by the interviewer, the Liberal Democrat leader refused to be knocked off his message. In just a two-minute clip published on X/Twitter, Davey chalked up six “of courses” and nine “regrets”.
The bottom line was Davey’s insistence that the 700 sub-postmasters wrongly accused of false accounting, theft and fraud by the Post Office “deserve a huge apology” — just not from him. The court of public opinion, he insisted, should instead cast judgement over “the post office, … Fujitsu and … all the people who led this conspiracy of lies”.
Simply put, this interview, and the reaction to it (with 2.1 million views on X and counting), is the clearest illustration yet that Davey is paying the largest price politically for the Post Office scandal.
Between 2010 and 2012, Davey — who is now leader of the fourth largest Party at Westminster — was postal affairs minister in the coalition government. In this capacity, he has been accused of not doing enough to help those affected by the Post Office scandal. And with heightened public attention flowing from ITV’s drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office, the political potency of the scandal, and Davey’s role in it, has grown greatly.
On 1 January, 9.2 million people tuned in as the British public bore witness, with increasing indignation, to the story of hundreds of Post Office branch managers who were falsely convicted of false accounting, theft and fraud — when faulty software was responsible. The scandal saw hundreds of small business owners running Post Office branches wrongly imprisoned during the 2000s.
It was quickly noted that Davey, as postal affairs minister, had initially refused to meet Alan Bates (the hero of ITV’s story) — before only later agreeing. Davey’s immediate response was that he was misled by the Post Office and that the institution had concocted a “conspiracy of lies” on an “industrial scale” to which he himself had fallen victim.
One reading of the scandal is that the Liberal Democrats as a party, and Davey specifically, are still paying penance for years in government from 2010-2015 as the junior member of the Lib-Con coalition. Davey, who was a senior figure in that government unlike potential successors such as deputy leader Daisy Cooper and foreign affairs spokesperson Layla Moran, could reasonably be said to have acquired serious baggage.
Another way of explaining Davey’s central position in the news agenda and the Post Office storm is political gamesmanship on behalf of his opponents. Indeed, the critics most keen to stress Davey’s culpability seem to be Conservative politicians, many of whom likely fear what a resurgent Lib Dem outfit could mean for their party’s prospects in the so-called “blue wall” — those mainly affluent, commuter-belt areas located in the hinterland of London.
Over the past few years, Davey’s party has proven itself to be an electoral force worthy of being taken seriously again. In 2022, it toppled a 24,000-strong Conservative majority in Tiverton and Honiton; and the party is eyeing a series of high-profile scalps at the next election, including cabinet ministers. This strategy is epitomised by Davey’s New Year’s message/gimmick of driving a “Tory Removal Service” poster van through seats in Surrey held by Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt.
And so one telling, stressed by Davey’s allies, is that the Conservatives are attacking the Lib Dem leader to both shift the spotlight away from their potential culpability and potentially thwart a “yellow wave” electoral advance in 2024.
In this regard, it is worth considering those Conservative MPs who have emerged as Davey’s most outspoken critics over the past week. First there is former Conservative cabinet minister John Redwood, who is under threat from the Lib Dems in Wokingham. He argues that “When [Davey] was the responsible minister he could have listened to those who knew things were wrong. It was his job to supervise or change the management.”
Treasury minister Bim Afolami’s Hitchin and Harpenden seat in Hertfordshire has been carved up by the Boundary Commission — and the Liberal Democrats look well positioned to take advantage. This week, he said Davey should “be honest with people” and explain why “he didn’t ask the right questions”.
And while Conservative MP Steve Brine is standing down at the next election, his pointed criticism of Davey this week might be viewed as him aiding his successor candidate in the Lib-Con marginal of Winchester.
Ultimately, if the Post Office scandal remains politically potent in the lead in to a general election, Davey could be peppered with questions from journalists during a campaign, soaking up precious media oxygen. In the 2017 election, former leader Tim Farron discovered how media mismanagement and a single outstanding issue can entirely dominate a once-promising campaign.
Another argument is that Davey has made a rod for his own back since becoming Lib Dem leader by repeatedly calling for under-pressure ministers to resign. Of those who inspired Davey’s ire in recent years include Boris Johnson, the then prime minister; Cressida Dick, the former Metropolitan Police commissioner; Matt Hancock, as health secretary; and Richard Sharp, the BBC chairman. These were scalps Davey could be said to have “claimed”.
But among the others to hold back Davey’s fire were Alok Sharma, while he was COP26 president; Priti Patel as home secretary; and Rishi Sunak as chancellor, twice — first over Covid business loans and then for his tax arrangements. Moreover, at the nadir of Johnson’s premiership, Davey put out a tweet urging “every” Conservative MP “who cares about integrity and decency” to resign.
Making such statements could be described as the essential job description of a Liberal Democrat leader — in the same way urging the PM to recall parliament is. It makes for a worthy press release and/or social media snippet that journalists together with party apparatchiks can circulate. But now it seems that Davey has become a hostage politically to his reputation for holding others to the highest standard. Looking ahead to the future, it seems likely that Davey’s calls for ministers to resign will now be met with a political relitigation of his role in the Post Office scandal.
So some Conservatives think Davey deserves a taste of his own medicine. Indeed, at prime minister’s questions this week, Conservative deputy chair Lee Anderson reasoned that Sir Ed “should take his own advice and start by clearing his desk, clearing his diary, and clearing off”. (Rishi Sunak did not echo Anderson’s call at the despatch box, but he did not rebuke or correct him — significant since he later accused SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn of “trying to politicise” the Post Office scandal with his line of questioning).
It is also worth noting that it is not only Sir Ed who has come under fire for his “role” in the post office scandal. One of Keir Starmer’s most prominent lieutenants, shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Pat McFadden, was Post Office minister from 2008-2009. Potentially worse still for the Labour leader, it has been found that three Horizon cases were brought against sub-postmasters by the Crown Prosecution Service when he led it between 2008 and 2013.
And that it is not to mention the string of other Post Office ministers, Conservative and Liberal Democrat, who have presided over the scandal and the campaign for justice both before and since Davey.
Here is a list of the 20 Post Office ministers, 1997 to 2022.
Eight were from the Conservative party, eight from Labour and four from the Liberal Democrats.
The sub-postmasters’ Horizon computer system was introduced in 1999. pic.twitter.com/qcprVRd7NZ
— Christopher Hope (@christopherhope) January 11, 2024
Ultimately, the weaponisation of the Post Office scandal for political purposes probably confirms what we already know: 2024 is an election year, and the campaign could be as dirty as any in recent British history. With a long campaign ahead, Ed Davey needs to come up with a better line than “Of course, I regret…” — and fast.
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
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