Before the Liberal Democrats’ great humbling, Tim Farron was fond of claiming that they possessed the resilience of “cockroaches after a nuclear war”. The apocalypse did come – but only Farron and seven of his fellow MPs survived. On the day I meet the former Lib Dem president in his Westminster office, the Parliamentary Labour Party has just held its leadership hustings. The Lib Dems could now stage an equivalent event in a large family car.
I begin by asking Farron how surprised he was by the scale of the defeat. “If I’d been forced to give you a number [of seats], I’d probably have given you low-to-mid-twenties. It declined in my head during the election but not by that much. I wouldn’t have said that I’d have eaten my hat,” he adds, in reference to Paddy Ashdown’s response to the exit polls, “but I was certainly surprised by ten and even more surprised by eight.”
Long before Nick Clegg’s resignation as leader, the 45-year-old Farron was the favourite to succeed him. The MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale became the darling of Lib Dem activists during his four years as president (to the resentment of his party’s ministers) and protected his reputation by voting against policies such as higher tuition fees, secret courts and the bedroom tax.
“It is hard to visualise anyone but Farron leading the troops back across the wasteland,” I concluded when I last interviewed him in February. With the defeat on 7 May of most of his putative rivals – such as Danny Alexander, Jo Swinson and Ed Davey – he faces just one candidate, the former health minister Norman Lamb (who is said to have taken some persuading to stand), in the Lib Dem leadership election. The result will be announced on 16 July.
Farron, who is finishing his speech to the Gladstone Club when I arrive and is wearing his trademark Dr Martens, sums up his pitch. “We got kicked into the wilderness on 7 May and the only thing that matters now is: how do we get out of it?” he says. “Norman’s got loads of great skills, he’s a mate, [a] very good minister. But in the end, who can they see inspiring the people who are not yet members of the party and who didn’t vote for us this time round to change their minds next time?
“We need to have a voice that is a lot clearer and a lot louder to compensate for our size being smaller and I think I’m the person who’s the campaigner and the communicator who can do that,” he continues. “If Norman wins, I’ll get right behind him. I think the current situation calls for my skillset, though I say so myself.”
He names housing, the environment and civil liberties as his priorities and declares his opposition to fracking (“It’s another fossil fuel”) and the like-for-like replacement of Trident (“It’s an act of aggression and will be seen as so by a global community that’s looking for people to disarm, not rearm to the max”). He refuses to say what a “good result” would be in 2020 but tells me that the key to the Lib Dems’ recovery is to establish themselves as “the clear anti-Tory party” in Cornwall and the West Country, where Labour has long struggled.
“We have to pick a number of seats and we have to go for it. We have to be part of a movement that seeks to remove a Conservative government from office,” he says. Nonetheless, he does not rule out forming a future coalition with the Tories on the grounds that doing so would make the Lib Dems “weak in negotiations” and that “the arithmetic” may demand it. However, for the first time, he announces that the introduction of proportional representation would be a prerequisite for a deal with either the Conservatives or Labour. “I would not sign off any agreement with any of the other parties that did not entail [electoral reform], end of story. Massive, massive red line, don’t even pick up the phone.”
I ask him which of the Labour leadership contenders he is most impressed by. “I’ll be very careful what I say here. I think they’ve all got something to them and for them . . . I just hope that Labour selects someone, for the country’s sake, who is bound to be tribal to an extent – that’s kind of their job – but is not too tribal and understands that what the Conservatives are about is entrenching themselves in power for a generation and they really don’t care if they dismantle the United Kingdom in the process. I hope whoever they elect is somebody who, whilst they must put the interests of the Labour Party first, [will] also consider the long-term importance of working with others to make sure we protect Britain’s future.” He suggests that Andy Burnham, the front-runner, could prove to be a surprise reformer. “There are some arguments for him as being a bit of a Kinnock-type character and I don’t mean that in a nasty way . . . [but] in a complimentary way. He’s somebody who’s perceived as of the left who could move the party in
a more moderate direction.”
Towards the end of our conversation, I mention the late Charles Kennedy, one of Farron’s mentors, to whom he delivered an emotional and acclaimed eulogy in the recent Commons tribute session. His eyes well up and his voice cracks as he tells me how he hopes to emulate his party’s lost son. “I remember my first Any Questions?. I bumped into him the day before on the Thursday and I said, ‘Any advice, Charles?’ and he said, ‘Yeh, yeh, just be yourself, just be yourself.’ So I think that’s very important.”
He continues: “Human, principled and effective – and he got our highest number of MPs in living memory [62, in the 2005 general election]. What Charles Kennedy is, is living proof that the good guys can be effective. We’ve just gone through an election where the bad guys were effective . . . Charles is proof that you can be human, you can be rigidly principled to a degree, thoroughly principled, and effective and win elections – and that’s a model I’d love us to follow.”
Now listen to George discussing Tim Farron’s leadership prospects on the NS podcast: