TP JRF coffee club interview: Tim Farron
Hero of last year’s conference, party president Tim Farron is hailed by many as the successor or possible usurper to Nick Clegg’s beleaguered throne. Always understated, Farron nevertheless tackles some of conference’s biggest conundrums with me today. On the question of leadership, he tells me why he would “never say never”, reveals his hopes for the Lib Dem leader’s closing speech tomorrow, explains why Danny Alexander is a “lightning conductor” and how Clegg’s former strategist Richard Reeves is “totally wrong”.
From my perspective, that the second half of the coalition is even more important than the first half. There are battles to be won, arguments to be won. Fundamentally we need to, while staying within the fiscal mandate, and carrying on with Plan A - for want of a better phrase - doing serious amount through social housing building, business planning, and the Green Deal. Serious chunky projects that will create jobs and stimulate the economy.
Secondly, linked to that, I guess, is we’re very, very concerned that the rhetoric of George Osborne and others threatens to undo all of David Cameron’s nice words a couple of years ago about the environment, and climate change is happening, and there’s no point in denying it.
The third thing, which is the theme of this conference obviously, is that our economy must be fair.
What advice would you give Nick Clegg for his closing speech tomorrow? What does he need to nail?
I don’t think he needs any advice from me, but I thought it was really good that he made his apology - I didn’t tell him to do it, although when he asked me my view I said ‘that’s a bold thing to do, and if you want to do that I’m behind you.’ I don’t really think he needs to spend any more time on that. You’ve just got to carry on demonstrating integrity in whatever else you go on to do. Nick Clegg has become a very, very serious politician and he is only one of two party leaders who matter. Labour do not matter until 2015. We do massively. And winning the argument on fairness, the environment and the rescue of the economy are things that only Nick Clegg can lead on, and I want him to do that in the speech, and I hope he will.
Speaking of Labour, why have you said that a Tory-Lib Dem coalition is a ‘better configuration’ than a Lib-Lab partnership?
I don’t think we should choose one or the other, what I’m simply saying is that if you think about the heritage of the Liberal Democrats going back a century or more, one might have thought if we’d entered the coalition that Blair and Ashdown were looking at in the mid-‘90s, we might well have lost our identity. The coalition is not about merging or assimilating, it’s about accommodating. You’d have to be crackers to think the Lib Dems and Tories would in any way assimilate. It’s a business relationship. Whereas had we gone in with Labour, people might have said ‘ah well, that’s you two merging then.’
Should you be preparing to go into a coalition with Labour come 2015?
I think we should be prepared for the eventuality of a balanced vote. We should attempt to learn from the successes and failures from last time round. But no, I take the view that we must respect the view of the British people, whoever they make the largest party, and it’s not for us to be kingmakers.
So do the Lib Dems now see themselves as solely a coalition party, rather than a potential majority government?
No, obviously I’d like to say that we’re a government party, but what we’ve done is gone from being a fringe party to a government party. I would like to see us go towards being a party that can lead a government, be the major party in a coalition, or indeed a governing party in its own right. We have to tap that ambition. I do not want us to be the British ‘free democrats’ just hanging around waiting to attach ourselves to whichever party needs our support.
What do you think of Richard Reeves’ idea of reaching out to the ‘soft Tories’ and leaving the centre-left behind?
I’m always reaching out to soft Tories, but leaving the centre-left behind is stupid. I like Richard Reeves, he’s a very nice and capable man, but I don’t agree with him on this occasion. He’s guilty of falling into the trap that the Social Democratic Party [SDP] did in the ‘80s, of imagining ‘right, here we are, new party, let’s think of the demographic that we want’. These SDP thinkers thought, ‘there’s a seat there – it’s got that many Volvo drivers, that many semi-detached homes, that many people who read the Guardian, that many people who wear brogues – they’ll vote for us’.
No. The people who are going to vote for you next time are the ones that voted for you last time. And Richard Reeves is totally wrong on that. In 1983, the election after that ludicrous brainstorming session, we got 26% of the vote, and 23 MPs, because our targeting was stupid, because we’d basically taken the advice of people like Richard. The worst thing we could possibly do is abandon the people who have voted for us in the past.
But will you be widening your demographic at all?
We should also be reaching out to people who now think the Tory party’s gone off to the extreme; lots of soft Tories who want to be led by people who are moderate in their temperament, who are competent, who are pragmatic not dogmatic. And that doesn’t sound like the people who will listen to Peter Bone and Nadine Dorries, does it?
What does it say about the party that signs of a leadership crisis have dominated the commentary of the conference?
Probably because we haven’t scored any own goals, so you’ve got to score some for us! In many ways, it makes for a massively boring Liberal Democrat conference... At my first Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton 23 years ago, we must have spent the entire time rejecting leadership proposals and all the rest of it. We’re very disciplined. We’re not sycophantic towards our leaders, or our presidents or our ministers or anything like that. We are affectionate towards them. And there’s a difference between ourselves and different parties where we are a family.
Do you ever see yourself as party leader beyond 2015, if Nick Clegg sees the coalition through?
Well, I’ve always thought personal ambition is a bit ugly, it’s not why I’m involved in politics. You never know what might happen in the future, but my hope is – and I think this is more and more possible – that we’ll continue into the next government in one form or another, in which case if we do adequately well in the next general election, why would Nick step down? And there’s no question of me, or anybody else I don’t think, of challenging his position. My ideal scenario is that Nick continues and is successful sufficiently so that by the time he eventually topples off the perch, he and I are both too old and decrepit to take the leadership. Never say never, but I’m not actively seeking it.
What do you think of some delegates accusing Danny Alexander of going native in the Treasury? Someone called him “more right wing” than George Osborne yesterday.
If you are the person whose job it is to see through a necessary but pretty horrendous cuts programme, you will rub some people up the wrong way. But I know Danny Alexander is constantly arguing for a fairer deal, and the most radical, progressive change in taxation in living memory and is working very hard. He’s anything but a right-winger. But he’s bound to end up being a bit of a lightning conductor I’m afraid.