It would be easy to forgive the Liberal Democrat MP Jeremy Browne for being morose. Seven months from the general election, his party is still polling in single figures and is in danger of finishing fourth next May, after Ukip. Not even the most pessimistic Lib Dem predicted a comedown this heavy when the party entered government for the first time in 2010. But when I meet Browne at his House of Commons office, he is brimming with optimism. These may be grim days for the Lib Dems but, he declares, they are glorious for liberals.
“We live in the liberal age now,” he tells me. “There’s never been a time when liberalism was more dominant in British politics and more equipped to answer the big challenges that we face as a country.” As a result of the rise of a more individualistic and less deferential society, he says, “We have a bigger marketplace in which to sell our product than we have had since the advent of universal suffrage.” The precondition for a Lib Dem recovery, he argues, is that his party understands and seizes this moment.
Since his surprise sacking as a Home Office minister in October 2013, the 44-year-old MP for Taunton Deane has used his time wisely, first writing Race Plan, a radical manifesto for free-market liberalism, and now Why Vote Liberal Democrat 2015. He explains that rather than merely rehearsing the party’s policy platform, he used the book (part of a long-standing series) to make a “distinctive” and “personal” case. If they are to flourish, he says, the Lib Dems must embrace “360-degree liberalism”, championing freedom in both the economic and the social spheres.
“If you talk to Lib Dem audiences about economic liberalism, which for me is the great global phenomenon of our time, and increased trade, competition and marketisation, Lib Dems get nervous that this will be seen as sounding too close to uncaring 1980s Thatcherism.
“As a result of that, we shy away from having a 360-degree liberal offer. We have a partial liberal offer. It reinforces the sense that we are hesitant about our own liberalism; we don’t follow through on each aspect of our offer.”
It is not an accusation that one can level at Browne. He argues for the establishment of profit-making free schools, for an end to the ring-fencing of the NHS budget and for a cut in the top rate of income tax from 45p to 40p. “I want us to promote entrepreneurialism, wealth creation and hard work,” he says of his stance on tax. “I think it’s necessary for us to be globally competitive.”
In a rebuke to Nick Clegg, who presents the Lib Dems as guarantors of a “fair society” in a Conservative-led government and of a “strong economy” in a Labour-led one, he tells me:
“I don’t think you want to stand up and say, ‘Vote for us, we’ll split the difference between the two parties. Vote for us, we’ll modify them.’ I don’t think that is a compelling pitch.” He adds, in a vivid analogy: “If you go to church, you might be happy to hear a bit about the fundraising appeal to mend the roof but you go to church because you want to hear about God.”
In appearance and ideology, Browne is as far from the Lib Dems’ beard-and-sandals brigade as it is possible to be. With his crisp suits and gleaming shoes, it’s easier to imagine him in the boardroom of JPMorgan than canvassing in a wet by-election.
Such is the conviction and vigour with which he propounds his views that it is impossible not to regard him as a future leadership contender. “This is where politicians are meant to give some sort of clever and evasive answer,” he laughingly replies when I broach the subject. “Let me give you a genuine answer, rather than trying to give you a clever answer.”
Browne believes there are “three broad options for the party”. The first is to “slump back into being a protest party” (“the comfort zone of tweeting about student sit-ins”); the second is to adopt a “continuity, steady-as-she-goes approach”; the third is to embrace “360-degree liberalism” and to be “the liberal voice in the liberal age”. Of the first two, Browne says, “I can think of candidates for both of those.” When I suggest that he has Tim Farron, the party’s left-leaning president, and Danny Alexander, the moderate Chief Secretary to the Treasury, in mind, he tells me, “Now you’re being mischievous,” which, I note, is not a denial.
Will he ensure that the party is offered a third way? “I don’t have massive personal ambitions. It’s a big sacrifice being the leader of a political party.” But he adds: “It’s essential that that choice is one that the party has. It’s actually essential that it’s one that the party adopts but it can’t adopt it if it doesn’t have [the choice].”
He adds: “Now, if someone else can do that better than me, that’s great.” And if they can’t? “We’ll see,” he replies in his low baritone. At this stage, it would be imprudent for him to say anything else. But if no one else answers the call, this liberal prophet will surely take the chance to preach to the unconverted.