Window dressing for the undecided: Lib Dems launch fantasy bingo manifesto | John Crace

“Three-minute countdown,” shouts a voice. Well, all right! The room begins to fall silent. The 50 or so candidates who have been chosen to be the backdrop for the event all raise their placards.

The Lib Dems have suddenly become a lot slicker. Time was when the party’s launch would have been in a disused sewage works. The sort of place where Thames Water turn clean water into shit. Now we are on the third floor of a loft space in a converted factory near Shoreditch in London. Where the hip people used to be. It all feels a bit New Labour. Nothing wrong with that. So long as no one mentions Nick Clegg. Lib Dems still have to cross themselves whenever his name comes up.

After a brief introduction from Munira Wilson, Ed Davey makes his way to the improvised stage from the back of the room. You get the feeling he would have quite liked to have crowdsurfed his way to the front. Probably just as well he didn’t. My shoulder is still knackered and I might have dropped him. Still, he took his time, delaying his entrance while Abba’s Take a Chance on Me played in the background and shaking hands with friends and party loyalists. This was his moment. The only odd note, his heavily powdered face. He might have overdone the makeup for the TV cameras.

Whisper it, but Ed is having a good campaign. The breakout star so far. Most of his stunts have been good-natured and well received and in his TV appearances he has achieved the politics gold standard of looking human. When he talks he sounds like one of us. An ordinary person with similar struggles to the rest of us. Someone who knows what it’s like to have to navigate the byways of the NHS. Someone who has experienced loss and can articulate his feelings. Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer would kill for that kind of stardust.

Davey smiled widely. Perhaps too widely. There’s still something of the ingenu about him. Almost as if he can’t believe the cut-through he has made in such a short time. Just a few weeks ago, few would have recognised him. Now his agent will be sounding out Strictly or I’m a Celeb. He then settled into his familiar patter. First the self-deprecation. References to paddleboarding and extreme sports. Keeping it jokey.

Then to the heart of his pitch. Where he really connects with people. He talked about his dad dying when he was four. How his mum got cancer not long after. How he had to look after her, collect her morphine and care for her in her last few years before she too died in pain when he was 15. You could say that Ed had to grow up fast. Some of us don’t do that much hard living till we’re into our 40s.

That was just the beginning. There was also his disabled son, John. There was always the love. But sometimes that’s not enough. There’s the paperwork, the hospital appointments, the endless waiting around. Above all the tiredness. The constant fatigue that comes with a worry that never leaves you. The worry that something will go wrong in an unforgiving system with no pity.

So here was the big pitch. An NHS that worked. A social care system that worked. Mental health care available for everyone that needed help. It sounded like a political nirvana. You vaguely wondered why no one had thought of any of this before. In Ed world, no one need ever die. The same with crime. Davey promised that every burglary would now be investigated. Dream on. At times it felt like we were playing fantasy bingo. Though that tends to happen with all manifesto launches. It makes you wonder why no one in government had thought of this stuff before.

Ed carefully ignored university tuition fees. Once bitten, twice shy. No more promises there. Just a last-ditch promise to bring in proportional representation. Mmm. I don’t think so. The Lib Dems had that opportunity in 2010 and blew it. But hey, this was an old favourite for the party faithful. Always best to go out on a crowd-pleasing anthem.

Most of the questions cut to the nitty gritty. How did the Lib Dems propose to pay for all of this? “Our manifesto is fully costed,” said Ed. So has every party leader who has ever lived. It’s just that sometimes the figures are imaginary numbers. Like the £7bn to be raised from clamping down on tax evasion. Not going to happen. If it were that easy, it would have been done already. Davey even promised to explain his thinking to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which had questioned his maths. I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Ed. It could get embarrassing.

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But all this was rather beside the point. To take the Lib Dem manifesto at face value is a category error. It’s not designed to be taken that seriously. Davey is not stupid. He knows he’s not going to be forming the next government. Hell, it will be a remarkable achievement if he wins more than 50 seats and becomes the leader of the third largest party.

Rather, it’s best to treat the manifesto as a mood board. Window dressing for the undecided. Topics to be discussed in the next parliament. Or the one after. Or the one after that. Rejoining the EU is hope unchained. Not necessarily to be implemented. Arguably something rather more radical than we’re likely to see from Labour on Thursday, given Keir Starmer’s desire to play it safe.

Far more than anything Ed had said at the launch, the real reason most people voting Lib Dem in just over three weeks’ time will be doing so is that they aren’t the Tories. That is enough. Enough for all parties. There’s a feeling that voters are fed up. They want change and will do whatever is necessary to punish the Conservatives. It could have been a very short manifesto.

Ed gave one last grin. It was time to have some fun. Back on the battlebus to Thorpe Park. Time for his daily adrenaline hit on all the rollercoasters. He gets twitchy without it. Meanwhile, the Tories were falling apart as Sunak was reduced to sobbing for the country’s forgiveness and insisting he was going to remain prime minister for the next three weeks. Reform was having its own issues as one of its candidates declared we should have been more accommodating to Hitler. Presumably the point Rish! was trying to make by bunking off D-day. The election campaign was gearing up for peak insanity.

The Guardian