The Liberal Democrats would seek “root-and-branch” reform of the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU rather than “tinkering around the edges” of the existing deal, Sir Ed Davey has said.

The leader has made clear that re-joining the bloc is not currently on the table for his party, but suggested Labour’s approach does not go far enough to strengthen ties with Brussels.

Speaking to the PA news agency, he said: “We voted against the trade deal that (Boris) Johnson put… Labour didn’t, I regret to say. So they’re gradually changing.

Liberal Democrat conference 2023
Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey alongside West Country MPs and key candidates as they arrive for the Liberal Democrat conference at the Bournemouth Conference Centre (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

“But I’m worried that when parties talk about tinkering around the edges, they’re not really advocating the root-and-branch reform that Liberal Democrats believe is important to rebuild our relationship with Europe.”

Sir Keir Starmer has said becoming an EU member state is a line his party does not want to cross, but has indicated he would seek closer co-operation with Brussels.

He has also suggested that he might seek to use a reassessment of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) to try to get a “better deal” for Britain.

The agreement signed by former prime minister Mr Johnson faces its first five-yearly review in 2025, though the extent of the talks are uncertain.

The Lib Dems are proposing a four-stage road map to “rebuild” the UK’s relationship with the EU, with preliminary steps to “mitigate damage” followed by “confidence-building” measures like joining Erasmus Plus, which covers exchanges and work placements for students.

Seeking a veterinary deal and other measures to ease trade would come third, followed by aiming to rejoin the single market, with the ultimate goal of returning to full membership.

The party leadership has not indicated how long it might take to achieve this goal,  but has made clear it would not happen immediately.

Experts have argued that the EU is relatively happy with the current agreement and the UK would likely need to offer incentives for any major changes.

Sir Ed arrived in eco-friendly fashion by bike to the Lib Dem annual conference in Bournemouth on Saturday as delegates debate a host of policies on the environment, health and the cost of living.

Liberal Democrat conference 2023
Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey alongside West Country MPs and key candidates as they arrive for the Liberal Democrat conference at the Bournemouth Conference Centre (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

The day’s agenda centred on proposed reforms to childcare and education, including a pledge for small-group tutoring to help pupils who have fallen behind in class to become a permanent fixture in England’s schools.

Schools, sixth forms and further education colleges would receive £390 million a year to offer 12-week tailored support to about 1.75 million children.

Statutory shared parental pay would be doubled under Lib Dem plans as education and children spokeswoman Munira Wilson said “not enough men” are taking leave.

An extra month of use-it-or-lose-it time off aimed at helping many fathers who “simply can’t afford” to spend time with their babies has also been voted through as party policy.

New parents are currently eligible for 37 weeks of shared paid leave, which the party wants to extend to 46 weeks.

“We need to persuade more Kens in this world to take a short break from doing beach and head on back to the Mojo Dojo Casa House.

“But I know that many dads do want to spend more time with their kids, they just simply can’t afford it,” Ms Wilson said.

“So Liberal Democrats will turbocharge parental leave, doubling pay so that new parents don’t have to rush back to work if they don’t want to, extending it to cover the first full year of a child’s life.”

Liberal Democrat conference 2023
Lib Dem education spokeswoman Munira Wilson speaking during the Liberal Democrat conference at the Bournemouth Conference Centre (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

The party is planning to use the conference, which it believes could be its last before a general election expected next year, to agree on policies to woo so-called “blue wall” voters in southern England.

Among other proposals is a new “blue flag” status to be given to rivers in Britain to protect them from sewage dumping.

The designations would echo a similar international scheme that exists for beaches and marinas which requires a series of environmental standards to be met.

Sewage became a major political battleground during the May local elections in so-called “blue wall” seats in southern England, where the Lib Dems are seeking to win over traditionally Tory voters.

Sir Ed has also unveiled plans for a £5 billion social care package focused on “helping people be looked after where they want to be at home”.

The party is expected to set out how this policy would be funded next week but has suggested it would save the NHS up to £3 billion by relieving pressure on hospitals and care homes.

“It means you having huge savings for the NHS, so the net cost is much, much lower. We think you’ll have savings of at least £3 billion from the NHS, from early discharge and less spending on care homes,” Sir Ed said.

A Conservative spokesman accused the party of playing “political games”.

“We are clear that sewage being discharged into our rivers is completely unacceptable which is why we are delivering more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement to tackle it,” he said.

“Whilst the Liberal Democrats are trying to score political points with parents, the Conservatives are getting on with the largest expansion of childcare services in a generation.”