Tim Farron is a confident man. By this time Thursday, he will be announced as the new leader of the Liberal Democrats — if the bookies are to be believed. Ladbrokes currently say he is a ‘huge odds-on certainty’ to win at 1/33, compared to 12/1 for his rival Norman Lamb. Farron graced the front seat of my Mini this morning to discuss his agenda as leader.
His first job on Friday morning is to underline the point that Lib Dems can no longer be orientated around representation in parliament. ‘Organisationally for the Liberal Democrats, the leader’s office has traditionally been in Westminster in the Houses of Parliament,’ he says. ‘Frankly it shouldn’t be, so the leaders office with me will move over to HQ’. Then, Farron will move onto the large task to ‘rebuild the movement’ and make the party’s voice in opposition heard.
‘That is all part and parcel of trying to make sure that we communicate that very simple message so amongst the things that we’ll be doing very quickly is getting across a message that is not nuanced but is all about challenging this government on the things and providing more hopeful, more colourful and more exciting alternatives.’
Moving back into double figures
Rebuilding what Farron calls the ‘movement’ is going to be hard. ‘I am not planning to tell you what numbers of MPs we may consider to be a passable result,’ he says with regards to the 2020 election, but suggests ‘more than eight I think is a reasonable assessment.’ Another measure of success will be ‘establishing a purpose’ for the party, which Farron sees as ‘getting to that position where we are in double figures, teens, high teens, maybe higher in terms of percentage points.’
Given that his party has been chastened by May’s election result, Farron hopes to use his oodles of energy for cheering up the Lib Dems. ‘I certainly think my job is to take us out of the doldrums, out of single figures, into the teens and to create a platform so people have a real sense of on whose side we are, what our purpose is,’ he says. ‘The Labour party’s lack of clarity gives us a massive opportunity to be a very bright and colourful and attractive opposition force.’
From Clegg to Farron?
If Farron succeeds Nick Clegg as Lib Dem leader, he will inherit a very different party. Although Farron praises the ex-leader — ‘Nick led us immensely on from late 2007 through that quite remarkable and heady period’ — he sees himself as an entirely different ‘campaigning leader’.
This is ‘somebody who takes advantage, if you like, of our reduced situation.’ Farron explains: ‘there are not many advantages to it but actually it means the leader can slum it, the leader cannot have to worry about being seen at every single parliamentary function and event.’
One of the tests for the next leader of the Lib Dems is dealing with the legacy of the coalition, which played a part in the party’s catastrophic election performance. Farron was president of the party during a significant chunk of the last government and, unlike Norman Lamb, did not serve as a minister. Farron voted for the coalition in 2010 and says he would again. ‘I’m not sure if any of us would have done exactly the same thing now,’ he says but defended the decision to grab at power. ‘We’ve been offered a chance of power for the first time in generations, if you get involved in politics and have a chance to be in government you don’t walk away at the first chance you’re given.’
Lamb has told Coffee House he does not regret the coalition and would also would go into coalition again. So would Farron. ‘I think you should never rule anybody out,’ he said but has a red line for any future negotiations: proportional representation without a referendum. It’s something he describes a ‘minor change’ but the Lib Dems would have no choice but to ‘grab that opportunity’.
Meddling with the media
One of the few controversies out the Lib Dem leadership contest has been Lamb’s comments on the need for a lesbian couple in the children’s cartoon Peppa Pig. Does Farron agree with him? Farron carefully avoids criticising his opponent, saying ‘trying to tackle homophobia when you are young’ is ‘clearly an important thing’, but argues that Lib Dems should not get too involved criticising the media — especially given the impending BBC Charter renewal.
‘I am against politicians meddling in the media and I understand the point he is trying to make but I think that we ought to be really, really careful giving advice to people on TV programmes — be it children’s programmes, be it Newsnight and we are going to have a big battle in this parliament to defend the independence of the BBC,’ he says.
Farron has undergone much scrutiny for his religious views and voting record on same-sex marriage and abortion. Given this, does he see any contradiction in having strong Christian values and leading a liberal party?
‘We wouldn’t be a Liberal party if we thought that somebody couldn’t be in it, couldn’t lead it,’ he says. ‘I think when Charles Kennedy was leader, he was Roman Catholic and throughout his time he managed to get the balance right.’
‘Christianity, faith in general, isn’t an entirely private thing but you have no right, I believe I have no right as a Liberal, to impose my faith on others and Charles was a great example of how you don’t ram things down people’s throats’.
A job for Norman
If the bookies are to be believed and Farron romps home to victory on Thursday, what will happen to Norman Lamb — would Farron offer him a job? ‘Oh yes,’ he instantly responds. ‘I want to make use of his skills and his talents and both of us, whatever happens, we are going to carry on being mates, which we are. He was a mentor of mine in 2005 and he is somebody who has proven and shown to me how you make best use of Westminster to make a difference to the country.’