Tim Farron is that increasingly rare political creature: a Liberal Democrat whose standing has improved since 2010. Enter his parliamentary office and you soon notice the signs of his success – an award for best MP on one side (he represents Westmorland and Lonsdale), a prize for most social tweeter on another. In the four years since the formation of the coalition government, the 44-year-old Lib Dem president has steered a shrewd course between loyalty and dissent. As a non-minister, he has been free to rebel on defining issues such as tuition fees, NHS reform and secret courts while remaining untainted by accusations of plotting.
When I begin our conversation by mentioning the fate of Lord Oakeshott, who was forced to resign after attempting to bring Nick Clegg down by leaking unfavourable polling, Farron offers a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger response. “I really like Matthew Oakeshott. I might be one of the very few people who still does. It was just unbelievably crass and foolish,” he says. “I hope there can be some way back for him.”
If coalition has been good for Farron, it has not for his party. Since 2010, the Lib Dems have lost a third of their members, 1,500 of their councillors, all but one of their MEPs, nine by-election deposits and as much as two-thirds of their previous opinion-poll support. One of the few consolations is the likelihood that the next general election will result in another hung parliament, offering the Lib Dems the chance to act once again as kingmakers. But while Clegg has ruled out support for anything short of full coalition, Farron argues otherwise. “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.”
When the Lib Dems entered government they chose not to take ownership of entire Whitehall departments, a decision now widely viewed as a mistake. Farron sees wisdom in an alternative approach. “When you’re a smaller party, identity is everything . . . so if you pick two or three or four departments and you run them really well, then you’ve got a clear message to send to the electorate.”
For progressives, one of the biggest disappointments of the present coalition has been the near-absence of constitutional reform. Farron tells me that Lords reform has to come “immediately back on the table” in future coalition negotiations and suggests that 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 [the single transferable vote] 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.”
I end by asking Farron the question he knows is coming: will he stand for the Lib Dem leadership the next time there is a vacancy? He is the bookies’ favourite and, according to a recent Liberal Democrat Voice poll, the members’ favourite to succeed Clegg. Farron replies, “I think anyone who is thinking about themselves at a time like this is incredibly selfish . . . I want Nick to lead us into the general election and beyond.” To translate: he’s ruling nothing out.