A measure of David Cameron’s longevity is the number of Labour leaders he has faced. In his ten years at the top of the Conservative Party, there have been three fulltime ones – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband – with a fourth on the way.
But what about the Liberal Democrats? They’re actually outpacing Labour in this regard. They reached three with Charles Kennedy, Menzies Campbell and Nick Clegg, but their fourth has already arrived. On Thursday this week, Tim Farron ascended to his party’s throne with 56.5 per cent of the vote.
It’s easy to poke fun at this prince turned king – and that is what many Conservatives in my acquaintance have been doing since the election. Here is someone who has been primed for the leadership for years, yet now the time has come there’s not much to lead: only eight Lib Dems in the Commons, one of whom is Farron himself and another his rival from an occasionally rancorous contest. No wonder it was a jester who said that “misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” What a lark!
Yet, as the appointed Lib Dem Outreach Officer in these parts, I’d warn against this sort of schadenfreude. The Conservatives’ coalition with the Liberal Democrats may have brought frustration and fury, but it also brought government, sweet government. It helped to break a 13-year duck, which in turn helped the Conservatives to a majority this time around. That oughtn’t be forgotten in these bullish days following the election. Braying at the Lib Dems’ misfortune is indecorous, at best. At worst, it could repel yet more people away from politics.
There are also cold, pragmatic reasons for not being beastly to Farron & Co. The Conservatives’ majority of 12 seats is a slim majority indeed. John Major achieved a larger one in 1992, but, as I’ve pointed out before, a series of defections and resignations had reduced it to a minority before that Parliament was out. Now, even without defections and resignations, Cameron will find some of this Parliament’s votes difficult to win. When the margins are so tight, even those eight Lib Dem MPs could come in handy. Who knows?
No, seriously: who knows? Those two words should be tattooed across the body of British politics, particularly after the experience of the last five years. As it stands, the Conservatives are most observers’ tearaway favourites to win in 2020. But, as it stood, Ed Miliband was meant to be in Number 10 by now, with Ed Balls defiling the public finances from next door. It could be that the next election brings about another Hung Parliament; after all, the numbers weren’t so far off this time. The next Tory leader might have to call Farron for support.
This will be another laughable proposition to many Conservatives. “Call the leader of a depleted party? For what? A few extra hands for moving back into Downing Street?!” But I’m not so sure. A few extra hands can make a huge difference in the case of a minority government. Besides, the Lib Dems might be more plural in five years’ time. Eight is a number that’s probably easier to increase than reduce.
It is now Farron’s job to make sure that the count goes up. He certainly starts off with a lot going for him. Sure, he’s no Nick Clegg, whom I regard as a sincere and underrated politician. But then again, he’s no Nick Clegg, whom everyone else regards as a patsy and a fraud. The Lib Dems, for where they are, were wise to choose a new leader who isn’t really associated with the Coalition – and, in fact, was often a critic of it. If anyone is going to bring back their lost voters, it is someone like Farron.
His distance from the last Government was helpful to him in another way. Whilst other Lib Dems were dirtying their reputations in the furnace room of Whitehall, Farron was building his with activists around the country. The role of President had him running the internal democracy of a party for which internal democracy really matters. His fan base is already built in.
And still more could go Farron’s way. If Labour rejects the centrist stylings of Liz Kendall – which seems more likely with every passing CLP nomination – then there will be more political space for the Lib Dems to play in. If both Labour and the Conservatives break themselves against Europe, then the Lib Dems can be a cohesive and prominent part of the In campaign. There’s a chance for them to regain their identity.
Much of this process will be irritating for Conservatives. If you didn’t like Clegg, just wait ‘til you get a load of Farron’s policies. He is more left-wing than his predecessor (or, on Iain Martin’s account, than Jeremy Corbyn). And he’s going to sing the same ditties about “nasty Tories” that the Lib Dems composed before the election, only this time louder and more insistently. But, remember, he’s not looking for your vote. He’s basically out for voters whose heads won’t allow them to vote Labour and whose hearts won’t pound for the Conservatives. That traditional Lib Dem aim.
This will have Farron attacking both sides at once, or sometimes nuzzling closer to one or the other of them. Will he prefer being nuzzle-mates with Labour? Perhaps. But there’s little sense in the Tory leadership approaching that as a foregone conclusion. There are areas where the Conservatives and Lib Dems can still work in fruitful cooperation with each other, which I intend to write more about in future. Suffice to say, for now, that Farron has a bit of the Blue Collar Conservative about him, not least when it comes to fuel duty.
Which leaves me with just a greetings card message to write: congratulations on the new job, Tim Farron – and good luck! From one of the few people who isn’t laughing.