Britain's rollercoaster-riding Liberal Democrat leader embraces stunts to gain election attention

LONDON (AP) — Most politicians try to avoid slips, stumbles and undignified photos. Not Ed Davey.

The leader of Britain’s centrist Liberal Democrats has turned the country’s six-week general election campaign into a showreel of self-deprecating fun.

Davey, 58, has tumbled off a paddleboard into England’s biggest lake, screamed atop a rollercoaster, splashed down a waterslide, careened downhill on a bike and tackled an assault course. He’s also built sandcastles, made pancakes, competed in wheelbarrow races and had a summer fashion makeover on morning television.

The zany stunts are the party’s answer to its electoral challenge: It’s not easy being the third- or fourth-placed runner in a two-horse race between the U.K.'s two main parties, the ruling Conservatives and their rival, the Labour Party. It’s even harder if, like Davey, you lead a moderate party in an age of extremes.

“We can marry having a bit of fun with some serious messages,” Davey said during a campaign stop in Carshalton, on the outskirts of London. “When I fell off a paddleboard in Lake Windermere, yeah everyone thought it was a laugh, but actually it was making a serious point about sewage.

“If you do it the traditional way, you make a speech at a lectern, you might get a tiny bit of coverage but people aren’t that engaged with it," he added. "I think that by taking a slightly different approach – with a bit of humor, a bit of emotion -- you can get people’s attention.”

Davey spoke to The Associated Press after visiting Nickel Support, a center for learning-disabled adults. He helped make spicy relish, dicing chili peppers before sticking on labels declaring the contents “Interestingly Different” onto jars.

“If that doesn’t describe the Lib Dem campaign, I don’t know what does,” Davey said.

Davey’s party was long the third-largest in Britain’s Parliament, but in recent years sank to fourth place behind the Scottish National Party. In campaigning for the U.K.’s July 4 election, Davey is competing for attention not just against Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour Party leader Keir Starmer – who is widely expected to be heading for victory – but also against the noisy populism of Nigel Farage and his hard-right party Reform U.K.

Hence the stunts. The last British politician this fond of playing to the camera was former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who famously got stuck mid-air on a zipline while waving Union Jacks. Unlike the deliberately buffoonish Johnson, Davey’s image is that of a stolid middle-aged, middle-of-the-road politician.

And while Davey's pratfalls have been zany, his first election broadcast was heartfelt. Davey talked in the video about losing his father when he was four, and a decade later caring for his mother when she had terminal cancer. He spoke of the joys and challenges of looking after his disabled teenage son, John, who has a neurological disorder.

Improving Britain’s overstretched health and social care systems is at the core of the Liberal Democrats’ promises to voters, alongside clamping down on sewage-dumping water companies, lowering the voting age to 16 and rejoining the European Union’s single market.

Davey’s campaign style has drawn mixed reviews. Evening Standard columnist Tanya Gold accused him of debasing politics with “infantilism and irresponsibility.” But there’s evidence voters are noticing. Polls suggest an uptick in support for the party, though many voters struggle to name its leader.

In Carshalton, where urban south London shades into leafy suburbia, office worker Connor Filsell, an undecided voter, drew a blank until a reporter mentioned the rollercoaster episode.

“Oh, that was him! I feel bad – I should really know,” he said.

Many houses in Carshalton display orange Lib Dem signs supporting local candidate Bobby Dean. The party lost to the Conservatives here by just 600 votes in 2019, and aims to win it back, along with other Conservative-held seats in the south and southwest of England.

The party is wary of overconfidence. It’s still haunted by 2010, when then-leader Nick Clegg’s charm sparked a wave of “Cleggmania” that propelled him into the post of deputy prime minister in a coalition government with the Conservatives.

What happened next became a cautionary tale. The Lib Dems had campaigned on a pledge to oppose any increase in university tuition fees. Months after the election, the coalition government tripled them. Voters punished the party at the next election, reducing the Liberal Democrats from 57 seats in the House of Commons to just eight.

Davey was a minister in the coalition government, and gets awkward questions about his role between 2010 and 2012 overseeing the state-owned Post Office at a time when its executives were falsely accusing branch managers of theft because of a faulty IT system.

Davey’s party makes fewer headlines than Farage’s populist Reform, though the Lib Dems will almost certainly get more seats.

Davey’s aim is to restore his party, which won 11 seats in 2019, to third place in Parliament. Some polls suggest that, if voter support for the Conservatives truly collapses, it could even come second.

He says the party's pitch to jaded voters is that it's "a reasonable alternative” to the Conservatives.

“I think most people are sensible and mainstream, want practical polices,” Davey said. “And I don’t think we should allow the extremists to dominate the airwaves, whether it’s Nigel Farage or, dare I say, Donald Trump."