On the campaign trail: Tim Farron in Kendal
If the Liberal Democrats are about to fall off a cliff in the general election, one man is keeping well away from the precipice.
Across the land, Lib Dem MPs face being thrown over the electoral edge by angry and disillusioned voters. Up in the Scottish Highlands, Danny Alexander could be one high profile casualty of the backlash. In Sheffield Hallam, polls have suggested that even Nick Clegg is not safe despite a whopping 15,000 majority.
It is a different story in the picturesque Lake District town of Kendal, where Tim Farron is basing his re-election campaign.
As the Lib Dem leadership frontrunner strolls around the centre of his constituency on a bright spring afternoon, progress is slow due to the number of people he keeps stopping to talk to.
On the high street, Farron pops into the local estate agent to say hello and emerges a good five minutes later. Down at the River Kent, he is recognised by two bike-riding youths who are keen to gatecrash our photoshoot. By the time we’ve reached his constituency office just a few minutes away, Farron has spoken to various residents with the sort of friendly familiarity which suggests they could all be his next-door neighbours.
“I'm sure the fact that we've been seen to immerse ourselves in the community, actually talk to people, get alongside them on local issues, it helps an awful lot,” says Farron, when I ask how he has managed to protect his territory from the epic national swings against the Lib Dems.
He tells how he learnt his “good old-fashioned Liberal community-style politics” from others, including a local councillor who he hung out with when aged 16.
“She was somebody who had great beliefs in internationalism, environmental politics and so on. But she basically enacted it on a day-to-day level by being a blummin’ good councillor who never stopped knocking on doors, having stalls in the market place, that kind of thing.
“And it summed up to me a kind of sincerity, that if you want to change the world you start by putting your back in, in the community you live in.”
Farron won Westmorland and Lonsdale from the Conservatives by just 267 votes in 2005. The Preston-born politican now has a majority of 12,264 in the constituency and is widely believed to be going nowhere on May 7. Labour are out the picture and the Tories have been given “zero chance” of winning the seat back by political commentator Iain Dale.
Not that Farron is at all complacent about the challenge ahead as polling day approaches. He may often be charm personified when faced with voters, but he stresses there will be no more Mr Nice Guy in the campaign office for the next few weeks.
“We’ll knock on thousands of doors and set an example,” he says. “You need to be unreasonable, because if you’re up against well-funded Tories, or Labour, we may have been in power for five years but we don’t have the funds they have and the only way to match those people is to outfight them several times over.”
He smiles: “And that means asking people to do things that might seem crazy, like delivering more leaflets than is at all sensible - doing things that are physically, psychologically and financially difficult.”
If anyone in the Lib Dems knows how to motivate the troops it is Farron. He recently stood down as party president after four years during which it was his job to tour the country and cheer up downtrodden activists.
A charismatic campaigner who wears his heart on his sleeve, he is now seen by many Lib Dems as the ideal candidate to help them rebuild after five years on the defensive.
“Barring some startling shifting of the plates, it seems almost certain that Tim Farron will be giving the leader's speech at the party's Bournemouth conference this autumn,” says Stephen Tall, editor of the Lib Dem Voice blog.
As we tuck into lunch at a café in the market place, Farron naturally won’t be drawn on the question of leadership, stating that it would be “utterly disloyal” to focus on anything other than the election. He adds: “Giving it headspace is dangerous. We actually have an outstanding leader. Nick and I are very similar in our politics… I’ve no desire for anybody to go replacing him.”
Yet just last month Farron struck a markedly different tone when he declared at the start of the Lib Dem spring conference in Liverpool that his party deserved just "two out of ten" for its handling of the politics of the coalition. He also suggested the Lib Dem brand had been tarnished by coalition with the Conservatives.
The comments were viewed by senior party figures as a cynical attempt by Farron to distance himself from the leadership ahead of a post-election move for the crown. Paddy Ashown expressed his displeasure in no uncertain terms and Vince Cable suspected that the former president “would not be seen as a very credible leader” any time soon.
A senior party source says: “Tim got a bit unstuck with what happened at conference. There was a frustration from the likes of Paddy and Vince that this was our last conference before the election, it was the chance to really show people what we’ve delivered over the last five years and we’re going to deliver next. And the story ended up being about leadership, which isn’t an issue right now.”
Whether Farron meant to hog the headlines as he did is not clear, but sources close to Clegg are sceptical. “He’s been around long enough to know what he’s doing,” says one. “Are we really to believe that it was all an accident. Or is it strategic?”
In his defence, Farron says he never meant to derail the spring conference with his interviews and that his comments were taken out of context.
“Firstly, you shouldn’t get drawn on that kind of thing, so that’s my fault for doing that. But I was asked for my view of what we had achieved versus how we’d been able to communicate that with the electorate. And I actually gave us 8 out 10 for what we’d achieved. What I gave us less out 10 for was our success in communicating that. But most of that isn’t our fault, most of that is you’re inevitably in that situation as the junior partner of the coalition.”
Did he really not envisage the headlines he would generate? “I didn’t for what it’s worth,” he shoots back. “In the end, you have a conversation with people, trying to explain our poll rating and so on…. It was out of context and you live and learn.”
He also reveals that Cable got in touch to apologise for his reaction. “He sent me a text to apologise and to say he was totally quoted out of context. So there you are.”
It seems that being quoted out of context is becoming contagious in senior Lib Dem circles as the election approaches. Sources suggest that Farron was deeply hurt by Cable’s comments. So how did the apology make him feel?
“Very nice of him to send me the text. These things happen though. I don’t hold it against him one little bit and it’s very much in his favour that he took the time out to apologise.”
Recent remarks aside, doubts persist about the leadership credentials of Farron, who has voted against tuition fees, Secret Courts and the bedroom tax. The man seen by many Lib Dems as the natural fit to be next leader is viewed by his internal critics as a lightweight student union politician.
“He hasn’t yet proven that he’s willing to make a difficult decision or come down on a side that’s not always popular,” says one party figure.
Farron rejects the charge that he has avoided getting his hands dirty and making tough decisions over the last five years.
“I spent four years being president of the party during the coalition. You couldn’t find a more taxing or indeed exciting time to have this particular role. My job was to go out and defend and speak forcefully and hopefully effectively on behalf of what all of our ministers were doing and defend their case in a way that perhaps they couldn’t because they had to defend a more compromised coalition line … So my take is that I’ve gone out and got my hands dirty doing exactly that.”
He adds: “If I’d been asked to be a minister in May 2010 I’d have been one, I’d have taken a position. I didn’t make a choice to not do it. But I then became party president, I was elected across the party and as a consequence you’re effectively in a reserved occupation.”
But is it in his character to make compromises? Farron insists that it is and points to his role in the unsuccessful 2011 Yes to AV campaign.
“Yes, you have to do that. I’ve always in principle believed in pluralist politics. During the AV campaign I was the lead person for the party in terms of reaching out to people who didn’t want to talk to us - and some of them we weren’t that keen to talk to. So I was the one who spoke to Miliband, Farage, Caroline Lucas and so on.
“So the reality is that you don’t become a liberal without understanding that whilst you might passionately hold your views, you must compromise – particularly if you haven’t won the right to govern alone.”
One thing that Farron can never be accused of is idleness. Not only is he committed to furiously pounding the pavements, but his constituency office has done more than 70,000 pieces of casework. The average MP has managed somewhere around a tenth of that figure.
“I do put remarkable hours in,” he says. “I'm rarely happier than when I'm out on the trail, because it's exciting… In terms of casework load, which is a real indicator of how hard you work, I think the only harder working MP in the country in terms of case work - and that's my team as well as me - would be John Leech.”
His ferocious appetite for the job conjures up an image of a man who barely stops for a break. Yet while Margaret Thatcher is famously said to have slept for only four hours a night, Farron is clear that this is not his modus operandi.
“No, no. I think you've got to look after yourself. And more importantly your family, so I'm quite ruthless about time with Rosie and the kids. But, you know, you work hard at the things that you enjoy. I enjoy both the London side and the constituency side of it.”
As well as a family man, Farron is also something of a rarity among centre-left politicians as a committed Christian. His religion is one of the few attributes that has occasionally raised eyebrows in a party with many atheists among its ranks.
In particular, Farron was one of 55 MPs to vote last year for a procedural motion on equal marriage that would have allowed for greater consultation with religious opponents.
He claims the motion would not have impeded the progress of the legislation. “What I did was I voted for a couple of amendments which were kind of conscience clauses for the likes of registrars and so on, which didn’t get past, but that wouldn’t have slowed it down at all,” he says.
He stresses that he firmly believes in the principle of equal marriage. “Equality under the law, which I support, is very very important. But I also think that you need to respect the consciences of other people who, for perfectly reasonable motives, just have a problem with it, and that was the case for quite a number of people.”
So does modern politics has space for people such as Farron to speak their minds? “It would be very peculiar if it didn’t,” he says.
Pointing to his support for the dis-establishment of the Church of England, Farron adds: “I believe in a secular politics. But it would be appallingly illiberal in the other direction if you couldn’t have people of faith and we all had to take a Dawkins line. We have to defend Dawkins’ right to say what he says, but we also have to have a society where people are allowed to think what they want, believe what they want.”
The Lib Dems picked up 46 seats under Paddy Ashdown in 1997, rising to 56 under Nick Clegg in 2010. Farron won’t say whether he would settle for a return to the 97 level but polling suggests that he should be so lucky. This time around, sources suggest that the party must hold on to at least 30 seats if Clegg is to remain as leader.
“We want to remain a party with a major presence, that's as close as I'll get to giving you a number,” he says.
Some in the party wonder whether Farron would really prefer to rebuild the Lib Dems from the comfort of the opposition benches, but he robustly denies that this would be the best way for the party to get back on its feet.
“Obviously you want the Liberal Democrats in government, don’t you. Parties that lose power have to look on the bright side and take advantage of what being outside of government permits you to do. But you don’t stand for election without wanting to make a difference and get into power. So we will react to whatever the situation is and we will absolutely be in positive spirit to make the best of whatever happens.
“Looking back to the Tories in 97 and Labour in 2010, if they both needed a period of time in opposition to recuperate it didn’t do them any good, did it? So I think we should be careful what we wish for.”
Farron is far too much of a pro to be drawn on whether he would rather ally with Labour or the Conservatives, but the general assumption is that the left-leaning Lib Dem would be far more at home with Ed Miliband than David Cameron (or Boris Johnson, come to that). It’s an assumption that was fuelled by Farron himself in 2013 when he used a New Statesman interview to lavish praise on Miliband.
Intriguingly, Farron now appears keen to give both Labour and the Tories an equally wide berth.
He says: “I joined the Liberals as we were then because I’m a Liberal. Not because they were a bit better than Labour or a bit better than the Tories. I have no preference between the other two. I note some differences between the two. It’s important to remember that for all the issues to where the Lib Dems and Labour party might have had some overlap, on social policy very often, it’s really important to remember how shockingly illiberal they are as well. I think one of the first things this government did was to scrap their ID card system.”
But it seems that Farron is on good terms with at least one senior Labour MP touted as a possible future leader of the party. And it’s not Chuka Umunna.
“Andy Burnham, he’s a northern MP, seen him on the train, he likes football, we have good banter about that kind of thing,” he reveals when I ask about his relations with some of the other leading lights on the Labour front bench.
“I’ve never spoken to Chuka Umunna really. But I can also tell you I speak to quite a few Tory MPs as well. It’s important not to be a blinkered tribalist – and I’m not.”
As Lib Dem candidates hit the doorsteps in the run-up to the election, even their most accomplished pavement politician is prepared for something of a bumpy ride. “We have a record to defend and that was always going to be a struggle in some circumstances,” Farron admits.
So what’s his patter to woo back disgruntled voters? Team Clegg will be pleased to hear that Farron is not looking to distance himself from the party’s record in government. Rather, he will be throwing in a few examples of local initiatives to sugar the pill.
“Coming into power, you clearly put yourself in a situation where you've got to make decisions that some people will not like, but I absolutely stand by our record in Coalition,” he says.
“On the doorstep, obviously there are some people who you need to win back round and so on, but it's not impossible to do that.... In the places I go we've delivered well for them on the ground. We try and mix up the stuff that we do locally.
“So we will talk about the fact that Liberal Democrats here have frozen your council tax in the same breath as saying what we've done in terms of the income tax threshold lifted nationally. And if you can ground and localise and almost personalise the successes we've had in government, that works well. “
Asked which of those successes means the most to him, Farron is quick to plump for ending the detention of children of asylum seekers. He could also list “lots of other big items” such as the pupil premium, the tax threshold rise and the increase in apprenticeships. But Farron says he picked the asylum seekers policy because "it’s a measure of Nick Clegg’s integrity and determination".
He adds: “There are no votes in that yet he expended a vast amount of political capital… So I’m very proud of us but I’m especially proud of Nick for delivering that.”
Farron’s staunch defence of the Lib Dem record and his fullsome praise of Clegg could lead one to conclude that perhaps the party leader and the former president are best mates after all. Yet a few poisonous briefings have suggested otherwise.
The Clegg camp are said to have branded Farron “sanctimonious” and “treacherous” after he voted against the bedroom tax in 2013. Earlier this year, a source told the New Statesman that a Farron leadership would be “a regression to the Charles Kennedy era
It’s not quite the Blair-Brown wars, but how strained is the relationship between the two senior Lib Dems? A source close to Clegg says any suggestions of a serious personal feud are overblown.
“It’s less Blair-Brown, more that you have a leader who has been through the wars and has taken the party into government for the first time in its history. When you’re in that sort of position, you have to make serious decisions and tough choices. And you have somebody who’s in a position where they don’t have to make decisions and can be a bit more emotional rather than rational about things in a world where copy-knocking is king. But there’s no personal animosity.”
The source adds that Farron has been especially pally with Team Clegg over the last few weeks. “He seems like a very different person actually coming out of conference. He’s been working very closely with HQ, working very closely with Nick’s team, a lot more collaborative… He kind of gets it now, he’s realised the focus needs to be on the election for the next few weeks and not anything else.”
As if to prove the point, Farron is frequently keen to shut down talk about the future of the party and to focus on the task in hand.
“It’s interesting to be asked these questions but if any of us allow our minds to be concentrated on anything other than up to and not beyond 10pm on 7 May then you really are letting the side down.”
Nevertheless I give it another try and ask whether Danny Alexander should be brought back into the Lib Dem fold if he does lose his seat. Perhaps the chief secretary to the Treasury could be chief of staff to the next Lib Dem leader. Or maybe not.
Farron plays it straight but doesn’t hold back from showering praise on Clegg’s key ally at the top of the coalition. “I’m backing Danny to win his seat. Of course he’s been a towering figure. Amongst the people who history will be very kind to, Danny Alexander is right up at the top. And we need to do our best to make sure that the present is kind to him too,” he says.
In an era of party dictats and machine politicians, Farron is refreshingly non-robotic. Shockingly, he even attempts to answer many of the questions thrown at him. Perhaps some other politicians could take note.
But there are also clear signs that the darling of the Lib Dem grassroots is keen to sing from the Clegg song sheet. So will he confess to being more on message as the election approaches?
“I’m always on my message,” he says with a chuckle. “I always mean what I say. I don’t think I’ve ever said anything I didn’t mean. Ever.
“If you trawl through the column inches of the last five years you’ll see that I’m probably a lot more on message than most.
“I just might use slightly different words.”