How Clegg removed criticism of Tim Farron from his Lib Dem rally speech

The deputy PM was due to say "I know that some people in our party don’t like us being too nasty to Labour" after the Lib Dem president said he didn't want to "diss" Ed Miliband.

In a much-noted interview with me in this week's New Statesman, Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat president and the standard bearer of the party's left, lavished praise on Ed Miliband. He told me: "I really like Ed Miliband, so I don’t want to diss him. I don’t want join in with the Tories who compare him to Kinnock."

He added: "I think he is somebody who is genuinely of the Robin Cook wing of the Labour Party, from their perspective what you’d call the 'soft left'. Somebody who is not a Luddite on environmental issues, somebody who’s open minded about modernising our democracy, somebody who’s instinctively a bit more pluralistic than most Labour leaders and a bit more internationalist as well."

In what some Lib Dems saw as a gibe at Nick Clegg, he also remarked: "For all that I think he could have done a lot more on the AV campaign, he did at least have the backbone to come out and back it. He wouldn’t share a platform with Nick [Clegg], so he ended up with me, poor thing. I like the guy."

In his speech at the conference launch rally tonight, Clegg was due to issue a coded criticism of Farron. The version of his speech emailed out to journalists beforehand included a passage in which he said:

"Now I know that some people in our party don’t like us being too nasty to Labour, so in the spirit of cross-party cooperation, I’m going to help them make a start. If the Eds are watching, here is the first thing they should do to win back the trust of people. Apologise."

The line highlighted above was an obvious reference to Farron's comments on Miliband ("I don't want to diss him"). But in the version delivered by Clegg it was amended to:

"But let's not be too nasty about Labour."

For the sake of party unity, Clegg retreated from an attack on his most likely successor as leader - and wisely so. When Farron signals his preference for Labour over the Tories, he speaks for most Lib Dem members. As a recent Liberal Democrat Voice poll showed, by 55% to 18%, members would prefer a post-2015 alliance with Labour than one with the Tories. If Clegg is to retain the faith of his activists, he needs to avoid giving the impression that he would rather form a second coalition with David Cameron than open the door to Miliband.

Nick Clegg with Jo Swinson outside the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Will Corbynites be in charge of the Labour Party forever?

What yesterday's important rule changes say about Jeremy Corbyn and his senior team.

Corbynism forever? That's the general verdict on the consequence of Jeremy Corbyn's big victory on Labour's ruling executive yesterday, as the NEC passed proposals to reform the party's structures. The big ticket items: an expansion of the number of trade union and membership places on the NEC, and a reduction in the number of parliamentary signatures required for candidates for the party leadership, from 15 per cent to 10 per cent of the PLP. (That's 28 MPs and MEPs or 26 MPs if the next leadership election takes place if/when Brexit has happened and there are no MEPs.)

"Forever" is an awfully long time, and you don't have to remember that far back to a time when one member, one vote was meant to ensure that the likes of David Miliband would be elected leader forever. "Forever" turned out to mean "not at all". Labour has an amusing tradition of its constitutional quirks not quite working out the way its architects hope, and it may well happen the same way this time.

The far more interesting story is what these rule changes say about Jeremy Corbyn and his senior team. They're getting better at games of "you scratch my back, I scratch yours" with the trade unions. The leadership also backed the Jewish Labour Movement's motion giving the party tougher powers to kick anti-Semites out and released a statement about it, too. As well as being the right thing to do, there's a crude electoral argument here – if Labour can repair its relationship with the community, its dominance in the capital and elsewhere will only increase.

All in all, the Labour leader is taking the challenge of winning more seriously and his team are increasingly streetwise. His internal opponents, well, they seem to be going in the opposite direction.

You don't have to agree with it to see that there is a good principled case to be made against weakening the right of MPs to help select the party's leader. Making it might even help Labour's Corbynsceptics, as one of their biggest problems is that Labour members see them as unprincipled. Yet instead of making it, they're criticising the move as "a power grab", and one that divides Labour when they should be uniting against the Tories. Bluntly, Corbyn grabbed power once in September 2015 and again in September 2016 and consolidated it in June 2017.  And the problem is, it's only divisive because Corbynsceptics are opposing it.

(Also, let's face it, if June 2017 had ended in a Labour rout, you better believe that whichever Corbynsceptic MP emerged as leader would be changing the hell out of the Labour party rulebook right about now rather than focusing on beating the Tories.)

Although there are significant exceptions – Bridget Phillipson's recent longread for the New Statesman is one – it's all too rare to hear a senior Corbynsceptic argue from principle rather than expediency. And until that changes, Corbynites will, indeed, remain in charge of Labour forever.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.