Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron at the party's spring conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Tim Farron: Lib Dems must not rule out support for a minority government

The party president contradicts Nick Clegg's position on a future hung parliament.

In tomorrow's New Statesman, I interview Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president and both the bookies and members' favourite to succeed Nick Clegg as party leader. As when I last interviewed him, it was a fascinating encounter. Here are some of the highlights. 

Lib Dems must not rule out support for a minority government

In anticipation of another hung parliament, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander have already pledged not to support a minority Labour or Conservative government. Clegg told the Sunday Times in April: "My party would not be interested in propping up a minority government without coalition. It isn’t a role I would see as right for myself or the Liberal Democrats". 

But Farron argued otherwise, suggesting that it would be careless for the Lib Dems to rule out any options. He told me:

When you go into negotiations with another party you have to believe, and let the other party believe, that there is a point at which you would walk away, and when the outcome could be something less than a coalition, a minority administration of some kind, that is something we all have to consider.

Those in Labour who are pushing for the party to opt for minority government if it falls short of a majority will take note.

On Lord Oakeshott: "I really like him ...  I hope there can be a way back".

It's hard to find anyone in the Lib Dems with a good word to say about Lord Oakeshott after his botched plot against Nick Clegg forced him to resign from the party, but Farron proved an exception. "I really like Matthew Oakeshott," he told me, adding that "I hope there can be a way back for him at some point". Farron's more-in-sorrow-than-in-an ger tone contrasts with that of Clegg, who remains understandably hostile towards the treacherous peer.

Here's the full quote:

I really like Matthew Oakeshott, I might be one of the very few people who still does, it was just unbelievably crass, foolish

I’m just so sorry he did it. Not that it came out so much, but that he did it in the first place, it was a completely unteamplayerish thing to do, and I like Matthew Oakeshott, I hope there can be some way back for him, but you can’t do things like that.

I was out canvassing with him [Oakeshott] in Southwark just four weeks ago, he’s a very good canvasser, he loves the party, he just did something that was very damaging to the party, and I hope there can be a way back for him at some point.

Coalition demands: Lords reform and PR for local government

One of the biggest disappointments of the current coalition for progressives has been the near-absence of constitutional reform, with House of Lords reform abandoned and the Alternative Vote defeated in the 2011 referendum. Farron told me that Lords reform has to come "immediately back on the table" in future coalition negotiations and suggests proportional representation for local government should also be a priority. "What we should definitely do, which is what happened in Scotland, is to bring in STV in multi-member wards for local government. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever not to do that because the constituency link argument doesn’t work; your average councillor is in a multi-member ward."

On Jeremy Browne: The Lib Dems must not become the FDP

The most striking answer to the question that has dogged Farron's party - What's the point of the Lib Dems? - has been provided by former minister Jeremy Browne, who has called the party to embrace an "unbridled, unambiguous" programme of free market liberalism. It is an approach that Farron rejects on both ideological and psephological grounds. He warned that "smaller states equal weaker citizens and more vulnerable citizens" and rejected the notion that "there’s a pool of centre-right voters who are just waiting for us and we should just forget about all these people who read the New Statesman and the Guardian."

In reference to the fate of the FDP, the German free market party, which lost all of its seats at the last Bundestag election, he said: "If he’s saying we should become the FDP it’s not gone that well for them."

Here are some more quotes on Farron's vision of the state, one notably close to Ed Miliband's.

"I think the notion that liberalism is delivered through a smaller state, isn’t so. I think smaller states equal weaker citizens and more vulnerable citizens, because the notion that all we need to be freer is to have the government out of our hair is simplistic when you think there’s much, much nastier forces that get in your hair when the government isn’t there."

"People don’t like paying taxes, there is an issue there, but I think if you look at the Liberal heritage. I don’t see a tension between economic and social liberalism. I am somebody who thinks that free markets are good, but what the Tories believe in is not free markets. The Tories believe in unregulated markets, which are not free. Free markets have a proper referee to keep them free, that’s normally the government or something set up by the government."

On whether he wants to be leader

I ended by asking Farron the question that both he and I knew was coming: will he stand for the Lib Dem leadership the next time there is a vacancy? He is both the bookies’ favourite and, according to a recent Liberal Democrat Voice poll, the members’ favourite to succeed Clegg. Farron told me: "I think anyone who is thinking about themselves at a time like this is incredibly selfish. Especially when we consider the people who worked their socks off for the party for months and years, many of whom sadly lost their seats in May’s election.  I want Nick to lead us into the general election and beyond."

To translate: he’s ruling nothing out.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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