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20 March 2015

Clegg’s praise for Farron shows he knows he’s the next Lib Dem leader

The Deputy PM describes his probable successor as "an incredibly gifted politician". 

By George Eaton

Tim Farron, the likely next Lib Dem leader, recently found himself in trouble when he declared that his party deserved just “two out of ten” for its handling of the politics of the coalition (Farron’s team said the piece bore “no relation” to the interview). The comment was viewed by senior figures as a cynical attempt to distance himself from the leadership in advance of a post-election bid to succeed Nick Clegg. Paddy Ashdown, the grandest of grandees, acidly remarked: “I like Tim. I think he’s a great campaigner but I think his well-known ambitions will be better served with a little more patience and a little more judgement”. Farron, who recently became his party’s foreign affairs spokesman after his second term as president ended, was also briefed against by an ally of Clegg, who told the Times: “We’ve had to give him Sarah Palin-style foreign affairs training. It’s embarrassing.”

The Lib Dem leader and his probable successor have never had the warmest of relationships. As I wrote in my recent interview-profile of Farron: “Farron is neither politically nor personally close to Nick Clegg, his party’s leader. Indeed, perhaps no two senior Lib Dem figures are less alike. One is left-leaning, northern (Farron grew up in Preston), comprehensive-educated, Christian and folksy, the other is right-leaning, southern, privately-educated, atheist and technocratic. It is unsurprising that Farron was chosen to play Nigel Farage during Clegg’s preparation for his debates with the Ukip leader: the pair are natural antagonists.”

In his 2014 conference speech, while hailing Lib Dem ministers such as Danny Alexander, Ed Davey and Norman Lamb, Clegg limited his remarks on the departing president to the observation that he had been “so convincingly brilliant at copying Nigel Farage” that it was “terrifying”.

It is striking, then, to find Clegg speaking more positively about Farron than ever before. In an interview with the Guardian, he said:

Tim is an old friend of mine who I’ve been speaking to over the last several days and he feels gutted about that. He feels that he’s been woefully misreported and feels a great sense of pride in what we’ve done.

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I hope when I stand down there will be lots of people who will be after my job … Tim is an incredibly gifted politician and his own intentions he’ll have to make clear when the time comes.

Clegg’s tone reflects an awareness that Farron is the Lib Dems’ leader-in-waiting and that his moment could come as soon as May. If the Deputy PM fails to retain his seat, or the Lib Dems lose more than half of their MPs, or they fail to form another coalition (or all three), he will fall and Farron will almost certainly rise. Faced with this outcome, Clegg has wisely chosen to respond with grace.