Ed Davey has accused Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings of lacking the compassion and empathy needed to rebuild the UK after coronavirus, as he launched his campaign to become Lib Dem leader with what he called “a caring agenda”.

In an interview to open his bid formally, Davey said his long personal experience as a carer meant he had a deeply personal stake in valuing the sector after Covid-19.

While he talked about Labour’s Keir Starmer as a leader with whom he could cooperate, Davey condemned the prime minister and his chief adviser, saying they were entirely unsuited to shaping a new approach to society after the pandemic.

“Those ideas have got to be of a different tone and a different moral compass to what we’ve seen before,” Davey said. “And I don’t think Cummings and Johnson are capable of doing that.

“I just don’t think they have the compassion that is needed. I think they just see it as a weakness. They don’t see looking after each other as a strength. I see it as a strength, because it’s tough. Caring is tough.”

Davey’s father died when he was four, and eight years later he and his brothers cared for their mother when she became terminally ill. He and his wife have a 12-year-old son, John, who is disabled.

“I feel huge empathy with those people who are carers, and who need that care,” Davey said. The Covid pandemic showed the lack of investment in the care system, he said: “It’s not acceptable for people who are doing the toughest of jobs, either unpaid at home for their loved ones, or in our care homes or in domiciliary care, to be treated in the way they’ve been treated for so long.

“That would be a very big part of what I’d like to see the Liberal Democrats talking about – how we build a more caring society. And if we can make common cause with others for a caring agenda, I’d like to do that.”

He highlighted the government’s decision to end the system of allowing MPs to speak and vote remotely in the Commons as a sign of their lack of care for more vulnerable groups. The return to a physical-only chamber saw MPs wait in long queues to vote on Tuesday, with many older members, or those who were shielding or were carers, unable to attend.

“We should be standing up for all workplaces, because there are people out there who will be under pressure to go back to work when they feel it’s not safe for them or their family,” he said.

“I think we should be having a debate not just about parliament, but about the whole economy, about those people and ensuring that there are protections for them. My worry is if you are vulnerable or you live with someone who is vulnerable, you’re going be the first person to be sacked. How fair is that?”

Davey has been the interim Lib Dem leader since Jo Swinson lost her seat in December’s election, in which the party returned just 11 MPs. Davey, an MP since 1997 – with a brief break from 2015-17 – is by far the most experienced of the candidates.

The two declared so far, Layla Moran and Wera Hobhouse, both entered parliament in 2017. Davey, who lost to Swinson in the last contest, faces another tough contest, with Moran seen as a joint frontrunner.

The leadership race had been postponed owing to coronavirus, but will now run over the summer without any physical hustings, with the winner announced in August.

While Davey is careful to not blame Swinson for the election debacle – “It would have been completely wrong if everyone had just blamed Jo and just blamed the last few months” – he endorsed the findings of a brutal internal party review that called the campaign “a high-speed car crash”.

Davey, whose policy platform includes a green-based economic recovery from coronavirus, said he wanted to move the Lib Dems to a broader policy focus after a period dominated by Brexit.

“People need to understand what a party is about. And you can’t define a party by an issue which will go, which is transitional,” he said. Under Paddy Ashdown, the Lib Dem leader Davey says he most wants to emulate, the party was “the champions on education and the environment, and I fear we’ve lost that”.

While Davey has been in politics for a long time, serving as energy secretary in the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, his profile remains somewhat technocratic. His leadership campaign therefore aims to push both his experience and his backstory, for example his experience as a carer.

During the interview, Davey’s aides prompt him to recount a tale which for many politicians would probably be better-known: about 20 years ago he received a bravery award for rescuing a woman, who had fallen on to rail lines at Clapham Junction station, from the path of an approaching train.

“A lot of my backstory I’ve not told before,” Davey said. “I didn’t really talk about it last time. But I want the party to know that I’m three-dimensional.”

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