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

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.