Tim Farron interview
The president of the Liberal Democrats removes a poster board from the boot of his car and props it up at the side of the road. ‘Tim Farron MP summer tour’, it exclaims, with a picture of the MP in a mac next to a smiling, yellow cartoon sun.
Farron gets out his umbrella and strides to meet 14 constituents waiting patiently in the rain.
We’re in the small village of Kentmere, in the Lake District – one of seven stops that Farron will make in his constituency today.
“Oh excellent, we’ve got a bit of a turnout,” he gleams.
For the next 30 minutes, Farron talks rural broadband speeds, planning applications, Margaret Thatcher and Post Offices to the increasingly sodden crowd.
(Coincidentally, fellow Lib Dem Danny Alexander’s grandfather and greatuncle are among the visitors. Danny’s holidaying in Spain this year. It’s a small Lib Dem world.)
“I do the summer tour to take advantage of the time when I’m in the constituency,” Farron explains later, navigating a stomach-fluttering turn in his car. “I’ll do the same again at Easter and Christmas.”
It’s rumoured that Farron’s constituency office is one of the busiest in the country – he’s dealt with more than 40,000 pieces of casework since 2005.
This will form the basis of his message at Lib Dem conference this year.
It’s about “ideological and practical commitments to community politics,” he says.
“As a party, having held more positions of responsibility over the last 20 years, particularly now in government, we’ve basically backslidden – not just in terms of delivering lots of leaflets, but a total immersion in your community. It’s also an intellectual critique of the big society.”
His message will extend right up to the top of government. “If you’re a minister, it’s about self-discipline and remembering that your civil servants, however lovely, have no interest in getting you re-elected. You have to take control of your diary and spend time out and about with people who you will learn to be useful from.”
He continues: “A minister said to me not long ago, ‘It took me a few months to realise that I could say no.’ Everybody in power, irrespective of their level, needs to know that they can say no, and they should make a practice of it. They’re elected to office. The civil servant isn’t. If you want to spend Wednesday knocking on doors, you should.
“Oopsie.” He pauses, steering through a particularly tight bend.
Farron became president of the Lib Dems last year.
At a Sheffield rally in March, he told supporters: “My vision for my time as your president is to give us a voice that is distinctively ours.”
Does he feel he has achieved that yet?
He points to “goodies” attained by Lib Dems in government, such as income tax cuts and the pupil premium. But coalition has muddied the water between yellow and blue. “I was in Grasmere Post Office this morning, and outside we heard someone say, ‘Tory’. He’d seen my poster. You want to go there and batter somebody like that. You think, ‘You have no idea how wrong you are’.”
He adds hastily: “And then, of course, you withdraw from the temptation and you know that’s wrong. But there is that danger. It’s deeply wounding for people to assume you’re something you’re not.”
One of the main obstacles to carving out a distinct Lib Dem vision is funding. “There are no two ways about it,” agrees Farron. “The loss of short money was a huge problem. We have to be more ambitious in our fundraising targets. We’re not rolling in it, but we’re not in trouble.”
The Lib Dems lack the large donors of the Conservatives, or Labour’s union backing. “My usual preamble for any bid for cash is that the only thing you’re going to get from your donation is the warm glow from doing the right thing.” Farron smiles. “Your chances of getting a peerage are reduced if you give us some money, because we wouldn’t want it to look like anything untoward.”
Ben Macintyre, writing for The Times, described Farron as “small, earnest and faintly prim”.
A Lib Dem colleague says Farron is “lovely but a little geeky”.
First impressions suggest there are a few pairs of sensible sandals on his shoe rack.
But Farron, who won the Westmorland and Lonsdale seat from the Conservative’s Tim Collins in 2005, is keen not to be dismissed as a fluffy Liberal. He certainly doesn’t drive like one. I stick my head out of the window as the car climbs another hill.
“I was once nearly a pop star,” Farron says.
Really, I ask, breathing deeply.
“Well, I say nearly. My band got offered a recording session with Island Records. In the blur of all the stuff, we didn’t do it…”
What was the band called? “We had a variety of names. We were called Fred the Girl, for some reason. We were trying to be obscure. There were no girls in our band. We were also called The Voyeurs… We thought it sounded good until we worked out what it meant.”
Farron joined the Liberal Party at 16, and became a local councillor at 23. He fought two parliamentary elections and one European election before winning his current seat.
Born in Preston in 1970, his parents separated when he was five. His father was a building trade manager, while he describes his mother as a “Guardian-reading, liberal type”.
“The separation was amicable, as far as I could tell.” Farron shrugs. “I was brought up by a single mum. My dad had quite a big involvement, but, to all intents, we were brought up in a singleparent household. As someone who’s a product of that, the ideal is still to have two parents.”
How does he feel about David Cameron’s rhetoric about two-parent families, following the riots?
The PM told an audience at a youth centre in his constituency: “I don’t doubt that many of the rioters out last week have no father at home. Perhaps they come from one of the neighbourhoods where it’s standard for children to have a mum and not a dad.”
Farron responds: “To say that single parenthood is a serious cause of the riots is a massive insult to every child who had a single parent who didn’t do that. Government can’t legislate for it. The idea that, for example, this is a pretext to introducing tax cuts for married couples – it’s absolutely flipping not.”
At 18, Farron became a committed Christian, but he found Liberalism first. “I made a conscientious decision to continue in politics after having a heart-search to become a Christian,” he explains.
Are politicians morally corrupt? “There’s a general sense of politics as a grubby business, but everybody can be morally corrupt, yes. We’re all scumbags. There are temptations in politics, and not just towards financial corruption or sexual misdemeanors. It’s more to do with vanity, selfimportance, cravenness and short-termism. It’s important not always to say the knee-jerk thing.”
He points to the Conservative and Labour handling of the News International scandal as an example. “This, ‘Oh, we accidentally got a bit too cosy with the media’ – which both Miliband and Cameron have said – is rot. You make a deliberate choice to be in someone’s pocket and serve their interests, and that’s a big danger.”
What does Farron make of the media generally? Rumours circulated earlier this year about a Kendal man who was jailed for more than three years after blackmailing a “respected member of the local community” over the latter’s secret gay sex life. Hints circulated that Farron may have been involved.
He laughs: “A bloke in Kendal – I know who it is now – successfully got another Kendal bloke put away for blackmail over his secret gay life. He was in the Westmorland Gazette. I remember seeing it because I know there’d been malicious stuff put there about me in the past. I laughed and said, ‘I bet they’ll think that’s me.’
"Sure enough, about four or five weeks later somehow a Gazette arrives in the Westminster Village… and it’s me. And I’ve clearly been blackmailed over my secret gay life – when I have neither a secret nor a public gay life.”
He pauses. “You have to be careful because the more you… people will keep talking about stuff… I have no idea about Hague, for example. He went out and vociferously said X, and you think, ‘Is that counter-productive?’”
“Part of me is just relaxed about it all. It’s all wicked, poisonous and horrible, but I know it’s not true. My wife knows it’s not true. Most people assume it’s not true. You can’t outlaw gossip, or all sorts of other things.”
Fellow Lib Dem Chris Huhne is currently being hounded by the media for allegedly allowing someone else to take his driving points. Nick Clegg even told a room full of journalists a joke about it: “Chris Huhne, I know, has been put under a lot of pressure in the media. I just want to say that, whatever people say or think about him, I really don’t know any politician who is better at getting his points across.”
But Farron is loyal. “That crack was testament that the mood was set. Clegg wouldn’t have done it otherwise.”
Unless it was a dig? “It may well have been. They’ve got history,” Farron speculates. “Having said that, Huhne has been unbelievably loyal since he lost the leadership election, to the extent of spending days – when he perhaps should have been in his constituency – locked in a studio with Nick, pretending to be Gordon Brown for the leaders’ debate. David Laws was David Cameron. Huhne did an alarmingly good impression of Brown.”
What about Farron’s own leadership aspirations?
Colleagues say that he is “clearly ambitious”. “Why else would he have put himself up for president?” asks one. “It is a hell of a lot of extra work. He must be doing that for a reason.” Another remembers a speech he gave at Lib Dem conference last year when Charles Kennedy was unable to make it. “Tim just literally jumped on stage and gave the most amazing rallying speech with no notes,” they gush.
“If there’s a vacancy tomorrow I wouldn’t do it – for family reasons, essentially,” Farron says. “I don’t say definitely not. I don’t say definitely never. My official answer – and I mean this – is I hope we recover, do incredibly well, and Nick Clegg is such a success that by the time he steps down, I’m too decrepit to be thought of.”
Wouldn’t it be refreshing if a politician just admitted, ‘Yeah, I’d love to be leader’ though? “I’m not sure I would,” replies Farron. “I’m being honest with you. I’m not pretending that I’m keeping my leadership bid quiet just for the right moment. I’m genuinely not sure. Truthfully, it’s not on my radar. People keep sending me what the bookies say. Don’t waste your money. A member of my staff put money on me when I was about 40-to-1, about three years ago, so he’s desperately hoping I do it, but…” He trails off.
He’s watching what he says. It’s a skill he’s adjusting to. After all, it was Farron who caused a commotion for labelling Margaret Thatcher’s policies “organised wickedness”.
“I’m used to just saying stuff,” Farron explains. “The best advice anyone ever gave me was, ‘Just be yourself’. But if you’re yourself when you’re in a more public position, then everyone hears you ‘being yourself’. You sometimes need to speak after a moment’s thought.”
He’s unrepentant over the Thatcher comments, though. “I meant them. I certainly felt that, as an ideology, it was morally bereft. It was about an assault on industrial community. It was ideologically motivated – almost spiteful – against communities who were deemed to be the enemy within. They had wives and kids, and whole communities were just annihilated. And she did it deliberately.”
But he’s made bigger mistakes, he believes. “A couple of things were pretty stupid,” he laughs. “One was signing what was obviously going to become a public letter to Charles Kennedy, saying he should step down as leader in 2006. I’d only been an MP for six months, so I’ll claim some naivety there. But it was cruel and unnecessary. I should have just rung him up. It was a cowardly act on my behalf.
“I also feel bad about – but absolutely do not regret – my vote on tuition fees. But I do regret potentially putting some of my colleagues in a difficult position with a couple of things that I wrote that were a bit ‘holier than thou’.”
He has suggested before that a future Lib Dem manifesto may still call for tuition fees to be scrapped. He nods. “I hope so. Effectively, we have a graduate tax, which isn’t perfect, but it’s better than tuition fees. We should have said so. The failure was that we were allowed to abstain if we didn’t like the outcome. We thought there was a long way to go before that. I don’t think anyone thought it would be a Lib Dem Parliament enacting it.
“What caught so many of us out, and stopped many of us sticking our oars in much earlier, was the prospect that Vince [Cable] was absolutely doing his best to achieve… We all thought we were going to get the compromise solution of a graduate tax. I don’t fully understand why that didn’t happen; to all intents and purposes that’s what we’ve got. It’s just called something else… The credit crunch is a consequence of us normalising debt with the tuition fees situation, and that obviously pre-dates this government. But we’re making it worse, aren’t we?”
Tuition fees remain a sticky issue for the party. But they also point to a broader problem. “I’m sure nobody who ever voted Lib Dem did so wanting us to lose, but I also think, subconsciously, many of our voters never prepared themselves for the possibility that their vote might actually lead to somebody being in power, particularly at a time like this, particularly when we’re not masters of the agenda, and we’re having to do things that aren’t that nice.”
What does he suggest is the antidote? “Those who say we sold out need to remember what things would look like without us – pretty nasty health reforms would have been passed in February, inheritance tax cuts for millionaires, no income tax cuts for the least well-off. Now we need hard, tangible wins.”
Does this include constitutional reform? “Lords reform is of limited relevance to most folks, but it’s important we achieve it for the future of our democracy. Some things we will achieve in government because they’re right, not because they’re going to win us very much. Sure, you need to get credit for things, but it’s got to be bigger than we’re currently getting.”
Over at Crosthwaite Village Hall, a woman has cornered Farron. “The sooner you get David Laws back in, the better,” she says.
“I couldn’t possibly comment,” replies Farron with a wink. “He’s involved more than you might know… Not receiving a salary for it though.”
He is possibly hinting at Laws’ involvement in writing part two of the coalition agreement. A negotiation to renew Lib Dem and Conservative red lines is taking place behind closed doors at the moment.
Coalition government may blur party lines, but it is very clear which side Farron’s on.
He votes against tuition fees, he slates Margaret Thatcher and he attends the infamous Glee Club.
He’s yellow through and through.
Interestingly, this could be his making at a time when other senior members of his party are struggling to avoid the blue stains of their Conservative partners.
I hop out of his car, feeling a little green myself, and leave Tim Farron to the rest of his summer tour.
It’s raining again.