Tim Farron is the most under-rated politician in the UK today. I write this in France having just read Martin Kettle’s piece in The Guardian on the French presidential election and watched people voting in the first round. (I had taken my wife after her nearly six-month hospitalisation for an Easter break at our favourite hideaway when the election was announced by the PM. By the way I approved of two things the French do which we could with advantage copy: first they had outside each polling station large metal framed posters of the 11 candidates instead of the untidy rash of party billboards we encourage – the next day our local venue had them reduced to the two for the next round, Macron and Le Pen, the latter sporting a scrawled Hitler moustache; and second they conduct and announce the count at each station sending in the paper ballots just for safe keeping, resulting in much quicker announcements of the results.)
Kettle wrote about Macron’s likely success and speculating on the non-existent centre ground in British politics asserted that “Tim Farron isn’t strong enough”. On the surface that is undeniable. He heads a parliamentary group decimated at the last election and, for the first time, not even the third party in the Commons. He is relatively unknown; he looks too young (well, dammit, he is 46, while Macron is 39 and Canadian Liberal PM Justin Trudeau 45) and he has a quick-fire northern accent which does not always appeal to sections of the snobby media.
And yet, and yet, the omens are propitious. Matthew Parris in a recent remarkable Times article, which likely got him into trouble, wrote of a Conservative Party moving “steadily in a more aggressive, more nationalistic and hard-edged direction” which if he were a young man today he “would not join”. I have had a sneaking teeth-clenching acceptance of his political acumen ever since the day in 1986 when, on the eve of the by-election he had triggered in West Derbyshire by resigning as MP, David Owen and I had made a last-minute dash there because we had heard we were about to win, only to find that Parris had just announced po-faced to the media that Labour was doing worryingly well. Complete rubbish of course, but enough to stop wavering Labour voters and scare wobbly Tories – we lost by just 100 votes to Patrick McLoughlin.
And now we have Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, buoyed by exactly the same rallies of the faithful which Michael Foot enjoyed, and misled him in the 1983 election campaign. As it happens I both like and admire Corbyn, having worked with him on all-party groups on obscure human rights causes like the Chagos Islanders and the Western Saharawis. But I concur with the received wisdom that potential leader of an ultra-left Labour government he is not.
So that brings us back to Tim Farron. I have known and highly regarded him since I first met him as leader of the student Liberals at Newcastle University. In 2005 he defeated a right-wing Tory MP by just 250 votes. At the next election in 2010 he jumped to a 12,000 majority, much of which he retained in the debacle in 2015. Twice he has persuaded me to address his annual constituency fundraising dinner saying “it is just over the border” – actually more than a 200 mile round trip over Hadrian’s Wall. I was deeply impressed by his hold on the good people of Cumbria. Indeed his election as party leader against Norman Lamb, who had been an excellent minister, was partly because party members wanted someone less identified with the post-Coalition disaster. He is a committed Christian, which I regard as a plus, and I do not understand the fuss about his alleged views on homosexuality or abortion since we have always accepted that these are matters of conscience for individual MP’s not for party diktat. His track record as MP showed him willing to oppose some of the errors of the party, especially the student fees fiasco. He is vehemently anti-Brexit.
My mind goes back to my first election as leader in 1979. I was an unknown compared to the previous leaders Jo Grimond and Jeremy Thorpe, and party morale was destroyed by the trial of the latter [Thorpe was accused of trying to murder a former friend, but was acquitted].
Our opinion polls peaked at a miserable 8 per cent. The Daily Express forecast we would be reduced to two MPs and I took a similar bet against the Commons bookie Ian Mikardo MP. Then we won the by-election at Liverpool Edge Hill just as we have now won Richmond.
The difference is that Richmond has been accompanied by scores of local election wins in unlikely places and a leap in party membership.
In the 1979 campaign we snatched survival out of the jaws of catastrophe. I am confident that Tim Farron will do much better, especially when the prospect of an unassailable Tory majority sinks in. Watch this space.
Lord Steel of Aikwood was leader of the Liberal Party 1976-88.