Ahead of the Lib Dem conference (they’re going last rather than first this year due to the Scottish referendum), I’ve interviewed Jeremy Browne, one of the most party’s most interesting and intellectually confident MPs. Since his surprise sacking as a Home Office minister last year, Browne has used his time well, first writing Race Plan, a radical manifesto for free-market liberalism, and now Why Vote Liberal Democrat 2015. In the latter he argues that the Lib Dems must embrace “360-degree liberalism” if they are to flourish, 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.” He argues that the rise of individualism and the decline of deference, most notably among the young, means that there is a “bigger marketplace” than ever for a programme of this kind (his policy proposals include the establishment of profit-making free schools, greater use of the private sector in the NHS, and a reduction in the top rate of tax from 45p to 40p).
Given the conviction and articulacy with which Browne states his views I naturally asked him whether he would stand for the party leadership when a vacancy arises. “This is where politicians are meant to give some sort of clever and evasive answer,” he laughingly replied when I raised the subject. “Let me give you a genuine answer, rather than trying to give you a clever answer.”
He went on to tell me that there were “three broad options for the party”.
Browne on the three kinds of Lib Dem leadership candidate
1. The protest candidate
The first, he said, was to “slump back into being a protest party” (“the comfort zone of tweeting about student sit-ins”). He added: “I think that would be a real let down if we did that, and would be an acceptance by us that we were not willing to be a bigger, more responsible party, so I’m very strongly against that strand, it may not identify itself in those terms but I think that may be seductive to some people in the party.”
It is not hard to see that Browne has Tim Farron, the party’s left-leaning president, profilic tweeter, and the activists’ favourite to become leader, in mind.
2. The continuity candidate
The second option, he said, was represented by “a continuity, steady-as-she-goes strand”, which believes “we can just continue to find a way to navigate around some of the pinch point moments that parties face, and muddle along.” Again, it is not hard to imagine which likely candidate Browne is thinking of: Danny Alexander (who has been positioning himself to stand).
When I put Farron and Alexander’s names to Browne, he replied: “Now you’re being mischievous,” which, I note, is not a denial.
3. The complete liberal candidate
The third option, he said, was to embrace “360-degree liberalism” (economic and social liberalism) and to be “the liberal voice in the liberal age”. When I asked him whether he would personally ensure that the party is offered this choice, he told me: “I don’t have massive personal ambitions. It’s a big sacrifice being the leader of a political party.” But he added: “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 that choice. Now, if someone else can do that better than me, that’s great.”
Lib Dem sources suggest that Browne has David Laws, the schools minister and another figure from the party’s free market wing, in mind. But Laws, who remains tainted by his forced resignation from the cabinet in 2010, may choose not to stand. When I asked Browne how he would respond if another economic liberal failed to come forward, he replied: “We’ll see”.
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.