This third post in my impromptu mini-series on Tim Farron is the easiest to write. I’ve already explained why I believe the Conservatives shouldn’t just dismiss the new Lib Dem leader out of hand, and where they may still find common cause with him. Now it’s time to list the irreconcilable differences between the two parties. This is simple because Farron is, of course, in the process of bending his plasticine party away from the centre-right and towards the centre-left. Disagreement with those ‘orrible Tories in government will be both a means and an end for him.
So here, specially timed to mark the appointment of the Lib Dems’ spokespeople, is that list of differences:
- Benefit cuts. In my previous post, I noted that there was one part of George Osborne’s recent Budget that Farron agreed with: the raising of the personal allowance to £11,000 next year, on its way to £12,500 by 2020. That left everything else for him to disagree with – and especially the benefit cuts. What makes these cuts stand out as targets is, in part, their incompleteness. The raising of the income tax threshold is already set for this Parliament, so it’s unlikely to draw much further praise from Farron. Whereas £billions’ worth of welfare cuts are still to be confirmed, so the criticism will just keep on coming.
- Housing. Tellingly, the very first video of Farron’s leadership campaign was on the subject of housing. He told the camera then that “this is going to be the Liberal Democrats’ key issue, I think, going forward,” and he’s trying to live up to that prophecy as party leader. The first strand of his position will be uncontroversial for many Conservatives: build more houses. The second strand will be slightly more contentious: heavier taxes on second homes. But it’s the third strand that will really separate yellow from blue. Farron is vigorously opposed to the Right to Buy, even to the extent that he wants the Lib Dems to be seen as the “anti-Right to Buy party”. Naturally, he mentioned Margaret Thatcher in his video, and not in a kind way.
- The environment.This doesn’t have its own “Tim Talks” video, sadly – but perhaps one isn’t necessary for this man who was once his party’s environment spokesman and who launched their Green Manifesto last year. In any case, his views are adequately represented in this Q&A from during the leadership campaign. Nuclear? Nope. Airport expansion in the South-East? Nope. Fracking? Nope, nope and nope. Farron might find agreement with Amber Rudd when it comes to tidal lagoons, but there’ll be precious little agreement with the Government as a whole.
- Immigration and civil liberties. Farron may have trodden on his own liberal credentials during that awkward dance over gay marriage, but he’ll hope to burnish them against Theresa May’s policies. His attitude towards immigration is, in some ways, totally contradistinct to the Government’s: he not only wants more non-EU migrants in the country, he also wants it achieved through greater cooperation with Europe. And then there is the Communications Data Bill – aka, the Snoopers’ Charter – which was blocked with joy by the Lib Dems in government, and will be opposed with even more joy from outside.
- Europe. Farron is ahead of many other Europhiles, insofar as he’s already come to terms with the referendum. He even urged Nick Clegg to guarantee one in the Lib Dems’ manifesto. Why so? The best explanation is the one he gave to Rafael Behr two years ago: “The minute other people say, ‘yeah there will be a referendum’, Cameron’s in a position where people are saying ‘which side are you going to vote for?’ and his party is split down the middle and they will be like cats in sack.” His goal is to provide consistency in the face of, erm, cattery. That will start with the Human Rights Act.
There will be other differences between Farron’s Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Government, but these are main ones. As he said when announcing his frontbench team earlier, “We will make the case for housing, immigration, Europe, environmentalism and human rights.” These are the policy areas that the new Lib Dem leader holds dear. They also happen to be those that divide the former coalition partners.