Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president, underlined his popularity with grassroots as he jogged up to the stage at the Independent’s fringe event to the fervent cheers of activists. They were eating out of his hand as he answered questions for an hour with Steve Richards.
Farron threw his weight behind Nick Clegg as leader, praising the Deputy Prime Minister’s ability to remain a warm and engaging man in spite of the trials of his job. But he blew pretty cold on his leader’s tuition fee apology, emphasising that it was a ‘totemic’ issue, and arguing that Lib Dems would be wrong to expect this to be a ‘turnaround’ for the party’s fortunes as reneging on the pledge had damaged their standing for a ‘generation’.
What was really surprising was the way Farron, in spite of frequent provocation from Richards, swerved away from attacking the Conservatives in the way that he has previously done. He was honest that he found it ‘awkward’ to be in coalition with the Conservatives, but he later added that there were some good pro-coalition Tories in parliament too (a few delegates hissed theatrically at this point).
Instead, he took aim at the Labour party, in the same way he did in yesterday’s speech. ‘They are a hard bunch to deal with,’ he said, adding that he had seen the liberal elements stripped out of the party, leaving it with a distinctly authoritarian character. He also said he didn’t have the numbers of any senior Labour figure on his phone.
Yet much of what Farron said about the economy would have been music to Ed Balls’ ears. He repeated his support for Keynesian policies, and argued that if the books would balance, he would like to see a return to the government funding new social housebuilding. The audience loved his attacks on Labour: they fight the party every day on a local level. But his desire to avoid the vehement attacks on the Conservative party like the ones Farron has launched over the past two years is strange.