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15 June 2017

The Lib Dems’ failures can’t be blamed on Tim Farron alone

In electoral terms, his leadership was torpedoed by factors outside of his control.

By Patrick Maguire

It’s goodnight from Tim. The Liberal Democrat leader has quit in the wake of a disappointing election campaign, admitting he has found it impossible to reconcile his Christian faith with the job.

 His abrupt resignation came after Brian Paddick, the party’s home affairs spokesman, quit the party’s frontbench citing concerns over his leader’s “views on various issues”. Sources close to Farron deny that he was victim of a coup. 

Farron was by no means universally rated within his party, but it is fair to say that few expected things to end quite so inauspiciously. Ultimately, however, the numbers speak for themselves.

Though the Lib Dems are up four seats on 2015, they drastically underperformed expectations. Farron had pledged to double the size of the party’s parliamentary cohort but of the nine seats they held when parliament was dissolved, they lost five. Gains in Scotland were the only thing that saved them from a terrible night.

In Manchester Gorton, where Farron had been quietly talking up the chance of a victory as recently as April, the Lib Dems were beaten by George Galloway. Most damningly, the 7.4 per cent of the vote they polled was lower than Nick Clegg’s post-coalition share in 2015.

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That is the saddest indictment on Farron, a left-wing cleanskin whose entire leadership was predicated on his ability to cleanse an electoral palate stained by the sins of coalition. Focus groups by Edelman for the Huffington Post during the campaign showed voters still preferred Clegg to his successor. Accounts of the Brexit election of 2017 will remember the party of Remain not for dogged pro-Europeanism but tortured theological arguments about homosexuality.

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They will take no pleasure from it now, but grandees like Paddy Ashdown – who warned way back in 2015 that Farron lacked judgement – may well be feeling quietly vindicated.

Easy though it is to blame Farron, in electoral terms his leadership was torpedoed by factors outside of his control. The Corbyn surge lost him exactly the sort of voters that the Lib Dems needed – young metropoles and anti-system voters – and deprived him of the ability to outflank Labour to the left. And as misguided as the party’s hard Remain strategy looks now, it had few other options at the time. 

So who next? It is easy to forget among all this that Farron had announced an election for the party’s deputy leadership just hours before he quit. Sources close to him indicated at the time that there would be no real contest – just a coronation for Jo Swinson, the former women and equalities minister who retook her East Dunbartonshire seat last week. Her name was in the frame for a top job well before the election and she is now the early frontrunner.

But if Farron’s tenure proves anything, it’s that the party ought to be wary of the unproven. Some believe Swinson – and the party – would be better served by a period as deputy to an old hand like Vince Cable, who is himself likely to run.

Whatever happens, Farron deserves some gratitude. But the missed opportunities of 2017 mean his party now has even further to go before it gets out of the wilderness.