Jeremy Browne's attack on Labour shows how the Lib Dems are divided on their future

While Tim Farron heaped praise on Ed Miliband, Browne says that Labour is "intellectually lazy" and suffering from a "leadership void".

With another hung parliament looking increasingly likely in 2015, the Lib Dems' thoughts are turning to a second coalition. But as the interviews with Tim Farron and Jeremy Browne in this week's NS show, the party is sharply divided over whether a partnership with Labour or the Tories is the more desirable outcome. 

When I spoke to him last week, Farron lavished praise on Ed Miliband, telling me:

First of all, he’s a polite and nice person. 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. 

He mischievously added:

And they’re other things too. 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.

As the Lib Dem president knows, should Miliband refuse to form a coalition with Clegg in 2015, he could well end up with him again. 

But Farron's admiration for Miliband is not shared by Browne, the Home Office minister and an Orange Book ally of Clegg, who told Rafael that Labour is "intellectually lazy, running on empty" and suffering from a "leadership void". Rather than acclaiming Miliband as a model progressive, he praised David Cameron for identifying "the big issue of our time" in the form of "the global race". Perhaps most significantly, he said of Labour: "I just don't think of them as equipped to run the country". 

With their interventions, Farron and Browne are offering diametrically opposed visions of their party's future. According to the former, the Lib Dems should unambiguously remain a party of the centre-left, committed to the restoration of the 50p rate of income tax and the eventual abolition of tuition fees, and seeking common ground with Labour. But in the view of the latter, the party’s best hope lies in transforming itself into a British version of the German Free Democratic Party: economically liberal, fiscally conservative and instinctively closer to the Conservatives than Labour.

At present, the Lib Dems are trying to obviate this divide by stating that they will simply align with the largest party. Farron told me that "the electorate will decide who's in power" and that "the chances of us having a choice [of coalition partner] are as close to zero as to be not even worth contemplating". But in an election that could be the closest for decades, it is conceivable that both the Tories and Labour could be in a position to form a majority government with Lib Dem support. As Clegg's europhile party knows better than most, it is not uncommon in other European countries for the second-placed party to take power (Willy Brandt’s SPD administration in Germany and the current Swedish government are notable examples). If the Lib Dems do have a choice of coalition partner in 2015, the party's ideological divisions will burst into the open. 

Home Office minister Jeremy Browne said of Labour: "I just don't think of them as equipped to run the country". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The Home Office made Theresa May. But it could still destroy her

Even politicians who leave the Home Office a success may find themselves dogged by it. 

Good morning. When Theresa May left the Home Office for the last time, she told civil servants that there would always be a little bit of the Home Office inside her.

She meant in terms of its enduring effect on her, but today is a reminder of its enduring ability to do damage on her reputation in the present day.

The case of Jamal al-Harith, released from Guantanamo Bay under David Blunkett but handed a £1m compensation payout under Theresa May, who last week died in a suicide bomb attack on Iraqi forces in Mosul, where he was fighting on behalf of Isis. 

For all Blunkett left in the wake of a scandal, his handling of the department was seen to be effective and his reputation was enhanced, rather than diminished, by his tenure. May's reputation as a "safe pair of hands" in the country, as "one of us" on immigration as far as the Conservative right is concerned and her credibility as not just another headbanger on stop and search all come from her long tenure at the Home Office. 

The event was the cue for the Mail to engage in its preferred sport of Blair-bashing. It’s all his fault for the payout – which in addition to buying al-Harith a house may also have fattened the pockets of IS – and the release. Not so fast, replied Blair in a punchy statement: didn’t you campaign for him to be released, and wasn’t the payout approved by your old pal Theresa May? (I paraphrase slightly.)

That resulted in a difficult Q&A for Downing Street’s spokesman yesterday, which HuffPo’s Paul Waugh has posted in full here. As it was May’s old department which has the job of keeping tabs on domestic terror threats the row rebounds onto her. 

Blair is right to say that every government has to “balance proper concern for civil liberties with desire to protect our security”. And it would be an act of spectacular revisionism to declare that Blair’s government was overly concerned with civil liberty rather than internal security.

Whether al-Harith should never have been freed or, as his family believe, was picked up by mistake before being radicalised in prison is an open question. Certainly the journey from wrongly-incarcerated fellow traveller to hardened terrorist is one that we’ve seen before in Northern Ireland and may have occurred here.

Regardless, the presumption of innocence is an important one but it means that occasionally, that means that someone goes on to commit crimes again. (The case of Ian Stewart, convicted of murdering the author Helen Bailey yesterday, and who may have murdered his first wife Diane Stewart as well, is another example of this.)

Nonetheless, May won’t have got that right every time. Her tenure at the Home Office, so crucial to her reputation as a “safe pair of hands”, may yet be weaponised by a clever rival, whether from inside or outside the Conservative Party. 

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