With just eight MPs (the same number as the DUP), the greatest struggle that senior Liberal Democrats say they face is that of relevancy.
At the start of his leadership in July 2015, Tim Farron swiftly positioned his party to the left of Labour. But the election of Jeremy Corbyn exploded this strategy. Short of staging a military insurrection against Buckingham Palace, there is no territory to the left of Labour to claim.
Farron’s closing speech to the Lib Dem conference revealed his new strategic aim: to fill “[the] hole in the centre of British politics”. He sought to differentiate himself from Corbyn by offering rare praise for the bête noire of the Labour left, Tony Blair.
Though he condemned the Iraq war and the breach of civil liberties, there was, he declared, “more to Tony Blair’s legacy than that”. Farron hailed the minimum wage, tax credits and public service investment (quipping that he saw the former PM the way he saw The Stone Roses: “I preferred the early work”).
“I respect him for believing that the point of being in politics is to get stuff done,” he continued, and you can only get stuff done if you win. Otherwise you’re letting your opponent get stuff done instead. The Corbyn crowd like to talk in terms of loyalty and betrayal. Well, there is no surer way to betray the people you represent than to let your opponents win.” It is simultaneously remarkable and unsurprising that no Labour speaker will be so kind about their longest-serving prime minister (though the Lib Dems’ own fallen star and Europe spokesperson, Nick Clegg, went unmentioned by his successor).
“I couldn’t work with Jeremy Corbyn, because Jeremy Corbyn would never work with me,” Farron resolved. “I wanted to work with him during the referendum campaign, but he wouldn’t share a platform.”
The first half of his speech found him in the familiar Lib Dem territory of europhilia He reaffirmed his offer of a referendum on the eventual Brexit deal: “We had a democratic vote in June. We can’t start this process with democracy and end it with a stitch up. If we trusted the people to vote for our departure then we must trust the people to vote for our destination.”
Though there is as yet little evidence that the public crave another referendum, Farron’s position is a shrewd one. With Corbyn having accepted Brexit (because he desired it, some claim), the Lib Dems stand to benefit from any anti-Leave revolt. The imperative for them is to take distinctive stances that lift their poll ratings from the subterranean depths of 8 per cent. Farron’s referendum offer, casting the Lib Dems as the anti-Ukip, passes the test.
The most emotive section of his address was on another liberal cause: refugees. Farron spoke of an encounter with a New Zealand aid worker in Lesbos, who, witnessing a British politician, declared: “Stop handing out bottles of water and take some f***ing refugees.” To sustained applause, Farron warned: “That is how Britain is seen. Mean and not pulling its weight. And maybe that doesn’t bother some people, but it bothers me.
“Because I am proud of who we are – always a sanctuary for the desperate, the abused and the persecuted; and I will not stand by and watch my country become smaller, meaner and more selfish.”
The Lib Dems are rarely wanting for ambition. In 1981, David Steel told conference delegates: “Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government.” Farron instructed them to prepare for opposition. He spoke of “doing a Trudeau” and surpassing Labour (the Canadian Liberals moved from third to first) before conceding that an “Ashdown” was more feasible. To take this party from a handful of seats to dozens of seats, from the fringe to the centre, from irrelevance to importance.
What Farron, in common with Corbyn, needs most of all is a Conservative meltdown. The hope for the Lib Dems is that in those constituencies where they remain the opposition, the electoral pendulum will swing to them.
In his peroration, Farron resonated passion for this task. “The only movement with the desire and the potential to stop the calamity of Brexit and the tragedy of a generation of Conservative majority rule, is this movement, is the Liberal Democrats,” he cried. Though the voters may tarry, if they come at all, Farron’s centrist radicalism gives his party a chance.