A week ago, I suggested that the Conservative Party shouldn’t be too quick to pick on Tim Farron. It wasn’t one of my more popular posts. Yet its basic point still stands: the Tories have relied on the Lib Dems to boost them into government before now, and they could have to rely on them again. It is both impolite and potentially imprudent to forget that.
In this spirit, I also promised to blog about those parts of the policy spectrum where blue and yellow can mix again – so, here goes. But first it ought to be said that this isn’t a prospectus for Coalition 2.0. Farron’s appointment makes that particular document very difficult to write. Whereas Nick Clegg bent his malleable party towards the centre-right, the new Lib Dem leader will reshape them towards the centre-left. Coalition with the Conservatives will soon seem like history that cannot be repeated.
But there are areas where Farron may agree with those dastardly Tories – nay, where he might even vote with them. And these chances for cooperation should not be spurned. As I wrote before 7th May, “whatever the outcome of the forthcoming election, it will surely demand humility on [the Conservative leadership’s] part” – and, sure enough, it does. A 12-seat majority is not large enough to dismiss the Lib Dems and their support altogether.
Anyway, here is the common ground, or common enough as to be worth mentioning:
- Low taxes for low-income earners. The best bit of the recent Budget, according to Farron? “…the raising of the income tax threshold to £11,000 on its way to £12,500…” In truth, the new Lib Dem leader is not as evangelical about this policy as his predecessor was, but it is now so intrinsic to the party’s message – the manifesto pledge that became one of the Coalition’s most totemic achievements – that he cannot separate from it now. Anything that George Osborne can do to bolster it, perhaps by raising National Insurance thresholds too, is likely to be welcomed in similar terms.
- Halfonism. How to aggrieve two politicians at once: compare them to each other. But I’m still going to risk it in the case of Farron and Robert Halfon. It’s not just that both men have consistently called for fuel duty cuts, although that’s part of it. It’s that they both do politics by elevating their constituents’ everyday concerns to the national stage. In Farron’s case, those constituents belong to the rolling fells of Cumbria, hence why he specifically wanted duty cuts for rural areas. He will still have their interests in mind, regardless of whether his new job complements or constrains his ability to campaign on their behalf.
- The Northern Powerhouse. An MP for a northern constituency supporting investment in the north? No! And yet Farron is upsetting all expectations by doing just that. One of the leitmotifs of his young leadership was also one of the leitmotifs of his last conference speech: “…we should be planning not just HS2, but HS3, 4 and 5 too!” Osborne is already working on the first two of these, of course. As for the rest? There will be differences between the two men over where any other routes should go. But the scale of their ambitions is similar.
- Devolution.The clue’s in the name: a Northern Powerhouse will mean more powers for cities and regions in the north. This is something that Farron wants too – and then some. In a recent article for the Huffington Post, he aped Richard M. Nixon by calling for a “New Federalism”. His argument seems to be that it’s unfair for English regions to be trampled on by Scotland in the ruck for devolution: “…both Scotland and Yorkshire have populations of 5.3 million, and comparable economies worth £117 billion and £102 billion respectively. … Yet Yorkshire has nowhere near the amount of powers as those being devolved to Scotland.” Again, Osborne might sympathise.
And that’s basically it. Not much, but something. Or – to look at it a different way – something, but not much. The real problem is less the shortness of this list, and more the weight that Farron places on its contents. The policies that seem more important to him, such as on housing and the environment, are those that are more likely to divide him from the Conservatives. The continental mass of Europe will also sit between the former coalition partners in this Parliament.
I shall return to these irreconcilable differences in yet another post. In the meantime, a glimmer of hope: if the Government sticks exclusively to cutting fuel taxes for newly employed and empowered construction workers in the rural north, everyone can remain friends.