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2 March 2015

Tim Farron profile: The Lib Dems’ leader-in-waiting

As the activists' darling launches his re-election campaign in the Lake District, he struggles to deflect questions about his next move. 

By George Eaton

Tim Farron is getting emotional. Tears well in the eyes of the Liberal Democrat MP and his voice cracks as he recounts the words of a constituent to his daughter. “The lady said to Gracie: “You should be really proud of your dad. We were stuck in a bedsit and he rehoused us, so you should be really proud of your daddy.”

He continues: “I’ll tell you what, if she had told me that, I’d have said: ‘That’s very kind of you to say that, but I tell you what, you got rehoused because hundreds of volunteers delivered shedloads of leaflets and the Liberal Democrats won elections and we built council houses and that’s how we rehoused you. So you should be dead proud of yourself and I’m dead proud of you. Because we won elections we rehoused that family, and a thousand more besides, and that is what winning means, winning is not about holding office, winning is about making a difference – and I need you to win again.”

It is this heart-on-sleeve style that has made Farron the darling of Lib Dem activists and their likely next leader. He has the indispensable political gift of making members feel that they are part of a moral crusade, a cause that justifies the unglamorous business of door-knocking and leaflet delivering. Farron recently stood down as the party’s elected president after serving the second term to which he was constitutionally limited; some said he could have held the job for life.

“Winning here!” declares the familiar Lib Dem slogan behind him. Farron, 44, is part of the elite group of yellow-rosetted MPs of whom that remains unambiguously true. As he reminds activists gathered in Kendal’s Shakespeare Centre for the launch of his re-election campaign, he won the constituency of Westmorland and Lonsdale by just 267 votes in 2005. “Who would have given us a chance of ending what was by that time 95 years of Tory rule? I don’t know.” Yet through Stakhanovite graft, he converted that micro-majority into one of 12,264 in 2010. A clue is provided to this success: his office has done 70,000 pieces of casework, ten times the average MP’s.

Farron’s territory has since remained immune from the epic national swing against the Lib Dems (one that has seen them fall from 23 per cent to as low as 5 per cent in some opinion polls). In the 2013 local elections, they won 53.8 per cent of the vote in Westmorland and Lonsdale and made a net gain of two seats from the Conservatives. In the catastrophic 2014 European elections, which saw their bloc of MEPs reduced from 11 to one, the equivalent constituency of South Lakeland was one of just four in which they finished first (the others being Gibraltar, the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands). There is perhaps no Lib Dem MP more likely to return to the House of Commons after 7 May than Timothy James Farron.

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The headline act is preceded by Shirley Williams, the party’s social democratic doyenne and a doughty campaigner at 84. She unhesitatingly lauds him as one of the Lib Dems’ “best-ever” parliamentarians. No reference is made to his status as a leader-in-waiting. There is surprisingly little local awareness of Farron’s potential ascent, though some constituents worry about him going off to become deputy prime minister

A pink-shirted Farron begins his speech by recalling the influence that Williams’s 1985 book A Job to Live had on him as a teenager. “I read that because I was a massive nerd and I was doing my O-levels, I did economics O-level. It struck me that what we were looking at in the mid-1980s was not the unemployment that comes from a recession that happens globally, which is a terrible thing but is an external consequence, a symptom of an economic disease, we saw unemployment, as somebody from the north west of England who saw a lot of it, we saw unemployment that was utterly and totally needless. And we saw people who were out of work essentially because the Conservative government of that time thought the way to crack the trade union movement was to make sure that they had no members because you kept people out of work and they couldn’t join a union. We had avoidable, unnecessary human misery caused by a government that chose to act in a specific ideological way. And that is utterly wicked, that is utterly wicked, that is not bad government that is immoral government. And that book unlocked to me and as I did my economics O-level I thought ‘I am joining the Liberals’”.

When Farron uses words such as “wicked” and “immoral” he does not do so for mere rhetorical effect. He is rare among centre-left politicians as a devout Christian who, in defiance of the advice given to Tony Blair by Alastair Campbell, most definitely “does God” (a fish badge is sometimes sported on his lapel). Farron’s religion is one of the few attributes that supporters fear could count against him among the disproportionately atheist Lib Dem selectorate. He was one of 55 MPs to vote in February 2013 for a procedural motion on equal marriage that would have lengthened the time for the legislation to become law through greater consultation with religious opponents.

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.

To internal critics, Farron exemplifies the student union politics that the Deputy Prime Minister has disassociated the Lib Dems from. A Farron leadership, one source told me, would be “a regression to the Charles Kennedy era”. As a non-member of the coalition government (though he now serves as his party’s foreign affairs spokesman), Farron has been free to rebel without fear of endangering his position. He voted against tuition fees, Secret Courts and the bedroom tax. After the latter, one senior figure was moved to ask: “Which bit of the sanctimonious, god-bothering, treacherous little shit is there not to like?”

Those close to Clegg have rarely disguised their irritation with Farron. In autumn 2013, after he lavished praise on Ed Miliband in a New Statesman interview with me (“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”), a speech was prepared by the Lib Dem leader in which he was due to acidly remark: “Now I know that some people in our party don’t like us being too nasty to Labour”. On stage at the party’s annual conference, this was diluted to “let’s not be too nasty about Labour.” But only after the Lib Dem press office had emailed the original text to journalists.

If Clegg has wisely avoided public criticism of Farron, he has usually shunned praise too. In his 2014 conference speech, while hailing Lib Dem ministers such as Danny Alexander, Ed Davey and Norman Lamb, he 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”.

At the Shakespeare Centre, Farron nonetheless praises Clegg so fulsomely that he is moved to tears. “I’ll tell you the thing I am most proud of, most proud of, that nearly nobody knows about, is that there are nearly 3,000 children of asylum seekers who are not under lock and key now because of what Nick Clegg did with his popularity.

“I hear Nick Clegg being attacked regularly; if you want to know the integrity of somebody, it’s that he spends his political capital, gets nothing for it and makes people’s lives better. That’s a man with integrity.

“Polybius, great Greek philosopher, once said that those who know how to acquire power are far greater in number than those who know how to use it wisely; absolutely spot on and I would say that Nick Clegg falls into the latter category.”

When Farron and I speak after the event, I ask him to respond to polls suggesting the Lib Dem leader is on course to lose his Sheffield Hallam seat to Labour (one senior source describes Clegg as “absolutely terrified”). “I saw the polls suggesting that David Steel would lose his seat, that Paddy Ashdown would lose his seat, you’ve got to remember that Liberal Democrat leaders throughout history have always been in a more precarious position than their Labour or Tory opponents, because we don’t do safe seats, Sheffield Hallam was a Tory seat until ‘97,” he replies. But he concludes: “You take nothing for granted, like I take this not at all for granted. But I think Nick’s strength in his constituency is strong and it’s a little bit of a sideshow.”

He wisely ducks the question of how many of the Lib Dems’ 56 MPs will survive the election (most in the party privately predict they will retain around half). “I think if I gave you a number, which I know you’d like me to do but I’m not going to, I think it would either be arrogant, assuming we’ll win seats which maybe we won’t, or the alternative would be that I’d be effectively writing off some colleagues.

“I’ve got in my head what I think is a number, there are various sets of numbers, which you think are acceptable, disastrous, brilliant and more shades in between. I was talking about 1997 before, that was our leap forward from being an outsider party to a main player party. We need to be nearer that ‘97 result [46 seats] than, shall we say, the results that came before it and that’s as close as I’ll get to giving you a number.”

Williams is more forthcoming, telling me: “I don’t personally think that we’ll lose more than maybe a quarter, maybe not even that. We will win one or two, I think, and we’ll lose a few. It will be much less dramatic than the tabloids suggest, it’s completely mad, all that stuff about being wiped out is just silly.”

For the Lib Dems, the consoling factor, and one explanation for the party’s extraordinary discipline, is the possibility that they could again hold the balance of power in a hung parliament. With an eye to the rise of Ukip and the SNP, Farron frames the choice facing the electorate as one between competing coalition partners.

“Do you want, this is the real million dollar question here, do you want the party that is second in the next coalition agreement to be some separatist or nationalist wrapped in a Union Jack or a Saltire? Or do you want the next party that is the junior party in that coalition to be sane, sensible, moderate and progressive? And if you want the latter, because the former is terrifying, you have to vote Liberal Democrat.”

I ask Farron whether, in the event of a hung parliament, the Lib Dems would side with the party that wins the most votes or that which wins the most seats. As in 1951 and February 1974, they may not be the same. Labour’s better-concentrated vote and the unreformed constituency boundaries mean that is likely to win more seats if the parties are tied or even if the Tories are slightly ahead.

To date, senior Lib Dems such as Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander have simply dodged the question (though both privately favour the Tories). But Farron breaks with this studied ambiguity by siding with most seats – and acknowledges that such a stance favours Labour.

“Let’s say the Tories get more votes and Labour win more seats, which is quite possible, we may think that morally we should put the Tories in but they won’t have enough seats, we won’t have a choice. Last time round, us plus Labour was 11 short of a majority of one, so a majority where we’d have had to rely on Jeremy Corbyn voting through the Budget, things like that, for instance, so 11 short even of that level of a majority, so it wasn’t an option.”

He adds: “I think the same thing will be the case this time round, almost certainly. We will not have a choice. We will be presented with an arithmetic by the electorate and all parties must be grown-up enough to accept it and not say, “Well, thank you for your opinions, we didn’t like it, tough’. Whatever the electorate give us through this fruit machine of an electoral system that we have, we have to be big enough, grown-up enough to make sure it works.

“The fundamental promise we must make to the electorate is that we will respect the outcome of the election and we will ensure, do everything in our power to ensure, stable government straight after the election, whether we are part of it or not.”

I end with the question that both Farron and I know is coming: will he stand for the leadership the next time there is a vacancy? He replies with the carefully-worded answer of a man who has faced this inquiry many times.

“My answer to that, and I know why you ask it, if I answer that, obviously a whole bunch of things happen, one way or the other. My take is that this is, and you know there’s no kind of hyperbole here whatsoever, the toughest election we’ve faced, certainly for a generation, possibly for longer. In which case, me giving headspace or column space, to any ambition I may or may not have on whatever happens after 8 May, would just be energy-sapping, it would be diverting, it would be arrogant, I’d be a bit of a prat if I spent much time or any time thinking about it.”

Farron may soon have no choice. Among most Lib Dems the “working assumption” (in the words of one) is that Clegg will depart after the election unless he can form another stable coalition with the Conservatives. Even then, the party’s losses may be wounding enough to force his resignation.

Norman Lamb, the care minister, is now regarded as Farron’s main challenger. Danny Alexander, who had been positioning himself for the job, will struggle to retain his Inverness constituency (a recent poll put the SNP 29 points ahead) and is tarnished by association with the coalition (a frequent complaint among Lib Dems is that he has gone “native” at the Treasury). Lamb, a member of the party’s free market “Orange Book” wing, is viewed by the right as the best available “stop Farron” candidate. But while the North Norfolk MP is well-regarded by lobby journalists and popular among the parliamentary party, he cannot match Farron’s rapport with activists. Mindful of this, he is “working the rubber chicken circuit hard” in the words of one source (so called because of the substandard fare served at local party dinners).

At one point in our conversation, Farron reflects on the irony that first-past-the-post, the electoral system against which the Lib Dems have long crusaded, could now be their saviour. Renowned incumbents will survive as other candidates are swept away. “We are absolutely competitive in all the places we’ve been traditionally competitive in,” he says. But he adds: “A major job for us, on day one after the election, is to begin rebuilding everywhere else; you have to protect the citadels first and then we can go out and repopulate the plains.”

At this moment, it is hard to visualise anyone but Farron leading the troops back across the wasteland.