28/09/2012 10:23 BST | Updated 28/09/2012 10:33 BST

Tim Farron Tells David Cameron Not To Bow To 'Hard Right Reactionary Tories'

The most frequent sight at the Lib Dem conference in Brighton was Tim Farron. It was a Tim Farron shaped blur.

The party president was in high demand, rushing between events and media appearances in an attempt to leave no moral boosting party pebble unturned.

Farron has carved out a position as gag-teller-in-chief, with his speeches anticipated by activists for their good (and bad) jokes as well as his easy going but earnest way of selling the party's message. He makes Lib Dems feel good about being Lib Dems.

Speaking to The Huffington Post UK moments after Nick Clegg's keynote conference address on Wednesday, Farron was in a chipper mood: "I thought it was great, obviously I would have said that as it's my job, but I genuinely mean it as well, it was superb."

Clegg and other leading Lib Dems used their conference to push a simple message that they hope the electorates will both understand, and more importantly hear. That the junior coalition partner is the only party that is both "competent" on the economy (unlike Labour) and will protect the vulnerable (unlike the Tories).

Farron talks quickly, rattling through the Lib Dem argument for why the party isn't totally ruined by coalition with the Tories. At one fringe meeting an audience member interrupted him to sharply ask him to talk slower, not louder, slower. He managed to lessen the pace for two minutes.

Would it be helpful for the Lib Dems if David Cameron were forced to take his party to the right? "Electorally I suppose," he accepted. "I would observe it's a good thing for the Liberal Democrats."

"Any modern, centre-right, decent minded, One Nation Conservative inclined or Conservative-Liberal Democrat voter is not going to be attracted by hard right reactionary extremist stuff that's coming from some people in the Conservative Party now," he said.

But he quickly, naturally, added: "But for Britain it is bad news actually."

"I always think it would be far biter for Britain at a time like this, in any circumstances but particularly when times are tough, that you have governments and political parties that are moderate in their language, that are pragmatic rather than dogmatic, that is what we are determined to be."

While Farron said it was "not for me to give political advice to David Cameron", he encouraged the prime minister not to bow to the demands of the Peter Bones and Stewart Jacksons.

"We will need to encourage those mainstream Conservatives, which account for most of the people I have to say, to continue to be that and not to give concessions to people who are bit crackers and dogmatic," he said.

"I do credit the leaders of the Conservative Party with some intelligence," Farron generously concedes. "If they have any intelligence then they will realise the reason the Conservative Party came back from 13-years of wilderness, they still haven't won a general election since 1992, but they got closer than they have done since then this last time, the reason they did better was they were more moderate, or appeared to be.

He added: "It wasn't that they failed to win because they weren't right-wing enough."

Even If the reputation of the Lib Dems has been trashed by going into government with the Tories, many in Brighton have argued that it is paradoxically easier for the party to survive a coalition of the centre-right than the centre-left.


Farron had previously suggested the Lib Dems may have been "assimilated" by Labour in 1997 had the Lib-Lab pact happened. Former defence minister Nick Harvey also delegates in Brighton there was a risk the Lib Dems would be seen as merely the "southern wing of Labour".

Is there not a similar risk in a post-2015 Lib Dem-Labour government?

"It was a risk," Farron said of Paddy Ashdown's flirtation with Tony Blair. "I suppose there were special circumstances, we were at the end of 18-years of Conservative government, very divisive, a Labour Party that was led by a man who was doing his best to be a young Roy Jenkins, not massively convincing in the process but all the same, and Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair had a reasonable relationship."

"There was a concern I guess that because the two parties had some common ground, there was a fear, largely unfounded but best to say it, there was a danger of the party's identity in a long-term way being somehow lost.

He does not have the same fears about the current coalition. "You can never say that between us and the Conservatives, it is clearly a very grown up very collegiate business relationship based on arithmetic not on principle.

"But a future coalition with any other party would be just the same, you can behave a in collegiate way, you can compromise with people you disagree with wildly sometimes."

Even if the Lib Dems are not at risk of being gobbled up by the Tories, the Rose Garden relationship between the two parties certainly appeared more than business-like it its early months.

Farron admits the chummy imagery of May 2010 did make him feel "awkward" and probably "damaged" the party electorally, but argues it was necessary.

"It's easy to say that [it was too friendly] in retrospect and you can point at certain things you might have done differently, but you have to put in the context of its time.

"It was a time of enormous economic uncertainly, we could have been in a situation where the deficit could have doubled in a weekend if there had been a chaotic run on the financial markets because of fears of what the coalition government might look like.

Farron recalled the "chaos" Tory election leaflets had predicted a coalition government would cause.

"As extremely important the mood music was, that there was sense of unity, it might have made people like me feel awkward and I am sure it did damage us electorally but you can't always have the best of both worlds."

Farron added: "We might have done things different at a different time. You could understand why the attempts to cement the coalition as a solid and reliable government was done."

There was no groundswell of rebellion against Clegg in the bars and meeting rooms of Brighton. But questions about who will succeed the deputy prime minister were asked and it was hard not to view both Farron and Vince Cable's appearances as early auditions for the role.

Farron is certainly popular with his party, raising a smile and enthusiastic applause when he speaks. But many Lib Dems who naturally support his more social-liberal tendencies asked a perhaps surprising question with conspiratorially raised eyebrows. Is he "too Christian" to be leader?

"Good question," Farron replied while pondering the answer, before remembering not to accept that he is, in fact, running for leader. "You speculate on what ambitions I may, or may not, have." Rumbled. But is it a problem?

"No," he insisted. "Liberal Democrats like people who've got some principles and certainty in what they believe in.

"The party is a party that respects minority faiths of all kinds and minority groups of all kinds, we do tolerance like it's coming out of our ears."

Farron added: "It would be very peculiar if someone was somehow dismissed on account of belonging to one of the minority groups."