Defeated Ed Davey: I wasn’t defeated

"I don't feel it's a defeat," Ed Davey told me. He was speaking immediately after suffering the Lib Dem leadership's most embarrassing defeat of this year's conference.

Davey, the energy and climate change minister, was left red-faced after party activists decisively rejected his attempt to back airport expansion in the south-east.

'Red-faced' is figurative here, not literal. After the result, which Davey watched from near the back of the conference hall in Glasgow, he walked impassively out of the auditorium amid a throng of activists – some delighted that they had knocked back his big idea.

Davey was the fall guy for a failed U-turn – a blocked change which would have effectively resulted in cross-party consensus on the need for increased airport capacity around London.

He had appeared on the Today programme this morning making clear Liberal Democrat ministers were keen to support Gatwick's bid for another runway because "technological change" has made aircraft greener.

Nick Clegg was known to support the change, too. It would have made any future coalition talks much more straightforward, after the the issue was kicked into the long grass in this parliament by the Howard Davies Commission.

MPs Lorely Burt and Stephen Gilbert spoke in favour of the switch. Gilbert implored Lib Dems to support it, insisting "environment is in our DNA". He argued: "Just as we must protect our children's planet, we must protect their prospects too."

His efforts were in vain. Instead Duncan Brack, Chris Huhne's former special adviser at the Department for Energy and Climate Change, wrapped up the debate with a firm dismissal of the amendment.

"Come on conference," he said. "Amendment four is simply not credible." He attacked the leadership for not coming up with answers about how, exactly, these technological innovations would be achieved. And he deployed a political card, too, playing on the party's fears about the next general election.

"What new voters are we going to attract as a result of this amendment? Will it make us more distinctive, as opposed to Labour and the Conservatives who both support airport expansion? Will it bring back the voters we've lost to the Greens?"

Roughly one-third of those voting in the conference hall actually backed the leadership. So as a disconsolate-looking Davey walked away from the auditorium, I asked him what he made of it.

"I think delegates weren't convinced the aviation industry is going to get their act together on the innovations that are needed," he said.

"Some people are more positive about whether this is likely to happen, but I think conference is sceptical. it's an understandable position to take. I've just been impressed by the way technology and innovation has delivered on zero carbon energy and zero carbon road tranport."

Most Cabinet ministers don't have to deal with a party conference defeating them on something like this. It would never be allowed to happen to a Tory or a Labour bigwig. Davey, who is not having a good day, was briefly speechless when I put this point to him.

"In a way, this may strike you as odd because in the Liberal Democrats we're used to having good high-quality debates on things like the environment," he added.
"I don't feel it's a defeat, I think in a sense either way we'd keep a stronger position on the environment.

"That's  what really drives Liberal Democrats – we heard the issue is fundamentally about whether or not we can get the innovation that's needed. One thing that the debate will do is send a very clear political signal that the airline industry has got to do better."

The airline industry will not be happy with this result. Nor will Clegg. Nor, for that matter, will David Cameron or Ed Miliband. Only the Lib Dem activists, grinning broadly as they filtered out of the auditorium, have reason to be cheerful.

Yet even they should be worried. Their leadership's position means the Lib Dem claim to be the party of the environment has been eroded once again. The issue may not feature in next year's manifesto. But if, somehow, Clegg and co do manage to make it into coalition again, the divide established today could come back to haunt them.