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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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a united force.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will continue.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.