Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron speaks at his party's spring conference in Brighton in 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Tim Farron turns on Miliband: he's no match for Kinnock

Having previously praised the Labour leader, the Lib Dem president says he has failed to change his party. 

Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president and the favourite to succeed Nick Clegg as leader, charmed activists at the Times's lunchtime fringe today. With his declaration that "our pitch for being in government again shouldn't be negative" (a rebuke to the leadership's strategy), and his call for an "active, ambitious" state to protect citizens from the vagaries of globalisation , he succeeded in lifting delegates' spirits. 

The most politically notable moment came when he was asked about Ed Miliband. In response to health minister Norman Lamb's comment that he couldn't see Miliband "as a prime minister", he warned the Lib Dems not to "personalise" the general election campaign. "Anyone can be prime ministerial once they're prime minister," he said. "I often think David Cameron isn't prime ministerial, but he is prime minister." He added, however, that "the problem for Labour is that people can't place Ed Miliband in their minds behind the door of No.10."  He then went further and quipped that it was wrong to compare Miliband to Neil Kinnock because "it's an unfair comparison to Kinnock". Unlike the current incumbent, he said, the former Labour leader "took on his party and won". 

Farron's criticism of Miliband contrasts with what he told me when I first interviewed him for the New Statesman in September 2013. Back then, he lavished praise on the Labour leader, declaring that "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." Now he argues that Miliband isn't even worthy of this unflattering comparison.

Although it's not surprising that the Lib Dem president should want to criticise the Labour leader at his party's conference, it adds to the sense that Miliband's stock has fallen in the last year. The irony, of course, is that Farron's call for a more interventionist state puts the pair in the same ideological territory. 

Elsewhere in the session, he argued that the Lib Dems "should have died in a ditch over tuition fees", noting that "reputations take years to build and seconds to lose". When asked whether he would stand in a future leadership contest, he wisely replied: "Anyone giving any headspace to anyone other than Nick being leader is letting the side down."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The trouble with a second Brexit referendum

A new vote risks coming too soon for Remainers. But there is an alternative. 

In any given week, a senior political figure will call for a second Brexit referendum (the most recent being David Miliband). It's not hard to see why. EU withdrawal risks proving an act of political and economic self-harm and Leave's victory was narrow (52-48). Had Remain won by a similar margin, the Brexiteers would have immediately demanded a re-run. 

But the obstacles to another vote are significant. Though only 52 per cent backed Brexit, a far larger number (c. 65 per cent) believe the result should be respected. No major party currently supports a second referendum and time is short.

Even if Remainers succeed in securing a vote, it risks being lost. As Theresa May learned to her cost, electorates have a habit of punishing those who force them to polls. "It would simply be too risky," a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Were a second referendum lost, any hope of blocking Brexit, or even softening it, would be ended. 

The vote, as some Remainers note, would also come at the wrong moment. By 2018/19, the UK will, at best, have finalised its divorce terms. A new trade agreement with the EU will take far longer to conclude. Thus, the Brexiteers would be free to paint a false picture of the UK's future relationship. "It would be another half-baked, ill-informed campaign," a Labour MP told me. 

For this reason, as I write in my column this week, an increasing number of Remainers are attracted to an alternative strategy. After a lengthy transition, they argue, voters should be offered a choice between a new EU trade deal and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be a distant memory. The proviso, they add, is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms (rather than ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). 

Rather than publicly proposing this plan, MPs are wisely keeping their counsel. As they know, those who hope to overturn the Brexit result must first be seen to respect it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.