Tim Farron Predicts Tories Brexit Split Will Be Permanent, Decries 'Small-Minded' Jeremy Corbyn

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron speaks the The Huffington Post UK about Brexit, Tory splits, Jeremy Corbyn, legalising cannabis, the diversity of his party and why the Lib Dems have a 'vast' opportunity to grow.

"Jeremy Corbyn clearly doesn’t care," Tim Farron sighs.

The Liberal Democrat leader is looking at how the EU referendum campaign has unfolded so far. He is unimpressed. And worried. "Anybody who doesn’t think they can lose an election, deserves to lose the election," he says.

"The case for ‘Remain’ is very strong," Farron insists. But he despairs at the way the debate has been dominated by "insults being traded" between "old school mates" Boris and Cameron on the Tory side.

And lack of engagement from the Labour leader frustrates. "His wing of the party is quite isolationist. They might talk internationalist. But they are quite isolationist," the 45-year-old says. Corbyn's decision not to share a platform with other pro-EU leaders, is, he bristles "utterly small-minded".

"It’s a real shame that that’s the case. But that kind of leaves us as the only progressive party united and enthusiastic about Britain remaining in Europe. We are reminded our role in this is very important."

Farron says he wants to offer the public a vision of the "sunlit uplands" that EU membership can bring. But dismisses the complaints by the 'Out' campaign that the 'In' camp is scaremongering.

"There is nothing wrong with people being afraid of something that’s dangerous," he observes. "This is dangerous world and you are better of with your friends and neighbours than you are against.

"All that 'Project Fear' stuff is a load of baloney."

In an interview with The Huffington Post UK ahead of the Lib Dem Spring conference this weekend, Farron suggests the Tory divide over Europe could be permanent.

"The offer of the referendum was Cameron’s short-term way of putting a plaster over a wound in the party," Farron says. "The wound is evidently deeper and probably unhealable now."

Farron says as much as he is irritated by the internal-Conservative "soap opera" battle over Europe, it is "damaging the Tory party, probably fatally".

He adds: "I was talking to a Tory peer the other day, who just thinks this is the end for them. That there will be some kind of proper split now."

This, coupled with Labour's floundering, presents a "vast" opportunity for the Lib Dems to bounce back after their general election drubbing.

Conservative MPs on both sides of the Brexit divide publicly insist the party will come together again after June 23 as one happy family.

But Farron questions their optimism.

He points to the experience of the 1975 referendum which split the Labour Party and led to the creation of the SDP.

"When you get into a different bunker to people it becomes something you get used to. I don’t know whether when Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams got into a different bunker to Tony Benn et al, I’d be very surprised if they or anybody else could have predicted in five years time, six years time, they would up sticks and join another party."

He adds: "That doesn’t mean that is going to happen this time either. It means, we don’t know."

Liberals in the Labour Party, he says, have "a leadership that isn’t interested in winning elections and trying to turf them out". While liberals in the Conservative Party find the "quite nasty and narrow politics" of Cameron and George Osborne "distasteful".

"That creates a place where there are a lot of liberals out there who are in parties who are not going to provide them with a home."

Farron wants to give them a home.

"However long it might take us to recover, it won’t be as long as the division within the Labour Party and the Tory party will continue for. I look at us, and we have to puff out our chests and grow and accept a place that is made for us. Our result last May makes that pretty challenging but there is nobody else so it has to be us," he says.

"I don’t expect the electorate to give us an overnight comeback by any means. It will be a tough challenge. This is not a quick job. But it’s an essential job. It’s a great challenge but it's an exciting one as well as you see British politics unfolding you see the biggest opportunity for us in recent history."

This week, Farron said cannabis should be legalised. The policy shift was accompanied by an admission that he had smoked the drug while at university. Did he enjoy it? "I don't remember," The MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale laughs.

But he says it is his experience as an MP, not his youthful experimentation, that informs the decision.

"I don’t think my position on this issue is affected by that at all. I think it’s just right to honest about it. For what it’s worth, I take the view that as a liberal you should be against everything that robs you of your liberty and that includes stuff that you’re addicted to," he says.

He attacks the "politically easy" decision of many MPs to ignore evidence that, he argues, shows legalisation is the way forward. "When you look at the damage done by drug-related crime in so many of our communities even in a pleasant place like the Lake District, it’s real and it's heart breaking. To ignore the evidence for a change in regulation that could make that better, I think that’s really reprehensible."

Before he became Conservative leader, Cameron famously held a more liberal position on drugs. "I think it's focus group driven rather than evidence driven. The same applies to his position on refugees," Farron says of the prime minister. "He is a follower not a leader."

"As an MP you see the damage drugs do to families and communities and my motivation is about that. And you see very talented people brought very, very low. Families which were otherwise stable brought to their knees by addiction."

Legalisation, he says, will enable the government to regulate the strength of the drug so people know what they are smoking while at the same time "completely kicking the legs from underneath" criminals.

"You also take away cannabis from the same marketplace as harder drugs then you significantly reduce the chances of people moving from one to another because you’re just not in the same place when you’re buying it," he says.

Farron also argues it would mean people who have problems are treated as people with a health problem rather than a criminal one and therefore are more likely to come forward to seek help.

To "cap it all", he adds, a legalised cannabis market would raise £1bn in taxes which could be ploughed back into police, healthcare and education.

However Farron is not convinced the same approach of decriminalisation should apply to prostitution, as recently recommended by Corbyn. "I don’t believe in laissez-faire, because that tends to lead to the weakest being damaged and the powerful getting their way," he says.

"That would probably still apply within the sex industry. I certainly remain to be convinced on that. Your job, when you are looking at regulation of things like that, is to look about how you protect the most vulnerable people. I am not convinced Jeremy’s position would achieve that."

Another failure of the laissez-faire approach has pushed Farron to try and use this weekend's party Spring Conference to push through a change to how it chooses parliamentary candidates by introducing all-women shortlists.

Awkwardly for a party that claims to be committed to fairness, all its current MPs are men. And even when the party had 57 MPs before 2015, just seven were women.

Farron also wants to increase the number of non-white, LGBT and disabled candidates.

"It’s about understanding that laissez-faire achieves very little and we end up situation where we had a terrible result last May and we were left with eight blokes. Eight blokes who were white. All of whom are wonderful. But they don’t reflect the diversity or the difference within British society.

"I want to do this as freely and in as liberal way as as possible," he says. But in a challenge to those in his party who oppose the move, he adds: "But it’s important a leader should lead. And I think it's an argument that says we will be more strong electorally if we are more strong in our diversity.

"This is an issue where leadership, top down change, is very important. It’s about deciding, you know what, if we don’t take direct action we may never solve this problem. If you set the example at the top then it will permeate."

Under Farron's plans, if a sitting Lib Dem MP stands down in 2020 they will be automatically replaced by a female candidate. And regions of the country that are especially strong prospects for the party, with for example four seats, will have to field two men, two women and at least one would have to be BAME.

It's an approach taken from the Canadian Liberal Party, which jumped from third place in 2011 to power in 2015. "There are loads of lessons to be learned from Justin Trudeau," Farron says.

The Lib Dem leader will not be drawn on whether any of his current MPs have hinted they may look for the escape hatch at the next election. "I have no indication from any of my colleagues of what will happen," he says.

Asked if he expects his predecessor Nick Clegg to stand down from parliament in 2020, he replies quickly: "I don’t. No. I very much hope he will continue."

And he says the fact the parliamentary party is so diminished could help ease the path to having more diverse candidates at the next election as notionally winnable seats are not already occupied by straight white men.

"Let's be perfectly blunt about this," he says. "It’s kind of easier to do it now when you’ve got whole swathes of the country where we don’t have a Lib Dem MP.

"We do have strength. We have plenty of winnable seats. But we haven’t got people who are sitting. That makes the job less painful and can be done more quickly. Which is why it’s so important we do it this weekend."

Farron took over the Lib Dems at a difficult time. Ruthlessly kicked by the electorate, the road back looks long. One man he does turn to for advice is Clegg. Farron says he seeks out the forme leader, who has been "immensely helpful".

"He’s not a backseat driver, he is not someone who is always in here telling me what he thinks. He is a very humble guy," Farron says. But notes there are similarities to his position now to Clegg's back in 2007.

"He had and interesting start to his time as leader. People forget we had a very difficult time. Ming [Lord Campbell] resigned shortly after Gordon Brown bottled it and did not go for an election. We then had a situation where Vince [Cable] played an absolute blinder as acting leader for two months and they were really hard shoes to fill.

"And so with Nick, people will remember quote rightly the brilliant debates in 2010. But it took him a good couple of years to establish himself."

Farron adds: "Taking over after a traumatic time, a different traumatic time, that I've taken over in, there's been some similarities."

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