Tim Farron, Facing Down Brexiteers And A Tory MP's Wife, Hopes For A South West Lib Dem Fightback

Theresa May 'just does not like people', says Lib Dem leader.
Liberal Democrats leader Tim Farron speaks to reporters on his general election battle bus.
Liberal Democrats leader Tim Farron speaks to reporters on his general election battle bus.
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Tim Farron missed the exact moment Theresa May sprung her surprise general election - because he was in the air, flying to Cornwall.

But the Lib Dem leader suspected that it was coming. “It was quite useful,” he says of the 45 minutes he was free from a buzzing phone. “I got off the plane thinking: ‘let’s have this’.”

And having it, the 46-year-old seems to be. Farron has thrown himself into the campaign, providing some of the most entertaining moments so far. He was berated by a Brexiteer in Oxford called Malcolm, fell over on his own battle bus live on TV and was overheard suggesting someone smell his spaniel.

Three weeks on from May triggering an election, Farron is back in the South West trying to recapture what, until 2015, was his party’s heartland.

Almost inevitably during the two day swing through Somerset and Cornwall, Farron gets accosted by a local demanding he renounce his pro-Remain platform while the wife of a local Tory MP waves a protest sign at him for choosing her child’s school to launch his education policy.

But Farron, who is fighting his first general election as party leader, says he would not have it any other way.

Speaking to HuffPost UK on board his battle bus as is trundles between policy announcements, he argues he would rather get shouted at than avoid voters like the prime minister does. “She just doesn’t like people. Unless I am very much misreading her,” he says.

“You can’t want to lead the people of this country if you don’t like the people of this country.”

May has been accused of hiding away from the public. Her campaign stops, largely, are unadvertised and open only to Tory party members. “You shouldn’t be afraid, in politics, of someone coming up and saying something rude or disagreeable,” Farron says. “That’s normal life.”

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On the beach at Burnham-on-Sea, in the Somerset constituency of Wells, Farron is strapping on a helmet and goggles in preparation for a ride on a search and rescue hovercraft. He is here to give a boost to Tessa Munt, the seat’s former Lib Dem MP who is hoping to recapture it from Tory James Heappey.

She is one of many Lib Dems kicked out in 2015 who are looking to make a speedy return to Westminster.

The pair look “ridiculous”, Farron admits. But that’s the point. It will get him and his party noticed.

When you only have nine MPs - what is there to lose?

Last week’s local elections results did not herald the Lib Dem comeback in the region that many were predicting.

As reporters race across the sand in pursuit of Farron, John Parkes, a local Lib Dem council candidate, explains the party’s performance on May 4.

For whatever reasons, traditional Lib Dem voters just didn’t come out to vote,” Parkes says matter-of-factly. The problem, he claims, was “confusion” among voters caused by May’s decision to call a snap election. “I think across all parties we’ve got to try to get the message across that we need people to come out to vote.”

Nevertheless, Farron says the outcome “gives us a bit of a crystal ball into what the country will look like in four weeks time”. By that he means a Tory landslide precipitated by a weak Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn combined with the collapse of Ukip.

Andrew Nisbit, a local Somerset Lib Dem activist, dismisses worries about the impact of Paul Nuttall’s party. “The Ukip vote wasn’t particularly high here. It totally collapsed in local elections so I don’t think they are a major concern,” he says.

The concern for the Lib Dems should not be people voting Ukip - but Ukippers voting Tory.

May’s plan for an increased majority is to ruthlessly gobble up the Ukip vote, just as David Cameron secured his surprise 2015 majority by eating into the Lib Dem support.

Ukip came third in Wells in 2015 with a not-insignificant 10% of the vote. As in seats across the country, thousands of Ukippers switching to the Tories could not only take out sitting Labour MPs, but block any Lib Dem fightback.

There is much talk of progressive alliances being formed across the country to fight the Tories. But worryingly for the Lib Dems, the opposite is also happening in the South West. Ukip has decided not to run candidates in Wells, Yeovil or Somerton & Frome.

Tim Farron taking part in the Kendal Colour Dash to raise funds for St John Hospice
Tim Farron taking part in the Kendal Colour Dash to raise funds for St John Hospice
Barcroft Media via Getty Images

The start of the Lib Dem campaign stalled after Farron - a committed Christian - was dogged by his refusal to reveal whether he believed gay sex was a sin. He eventually said he did not.

Farron, who took over from Nick Clegg in 2015, also had to ban an ex-MP from standing for re-election to parliament amid accusations of anti-Semitism.

But now the focus is on running an unashamedly pro-Remain election campaign with a promise of a second referendum on the eventual deal with Brussels.

It is a strategy that could hit quicksand in a region with a large Brexit backing population.

The MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale who describes himself as “working class”, dismisses the suggestion Brexit voting seats are out of reach. It is not as simple as that, he insists, and hopes.

With one or two exceptions, maybe be Kensington and Chelsea (68.7% Remain) and Sunderland (61.3% Leave), there is nowhere that is really Leave or Remain. Everywhere is split. And people may have changed their minds in both direction.

“It’s simplistic for politicians to think seat X is Remain and seat Y is Leave. It’s a lot more complex.”

And “no”, the Lib Dem says, his party has not changed strategy following the local election results - which he says actually prove people are coming back to the Lib Dems after its 2015 wipeout.

“We had a 7% increase in the Lib Dem share of the vote,” he says. “Which is the biggest share increase anybody had.

“You also had this Conservative landslide across the country which meant that some of our potential gains in the local level were dampened down.

“But which is the opposition party left standing, smiling and making progress in terms of votes after last Thursday? The Lib Dems.”

For Corbyn or May, what counts as a win or a loss should - although Corbyn’s team may have other criteria - be obvious. Are you prime minister on June 9 or not? But for smaller parties the victory line is blurred. What is success for the Lib Dems? How many MPs?

“You don’t start off a general election with a set number,” Farron says. “The first rule of Lib Dem campaigns is, if you did, you don’t tell people what it is.”

Yet the party has told us what it expects. Following the local elections results, it said was on course to more than double its current representation in parliament. Bath, Cambridge, Cardiff Central, Cheltenham, Eastleigh, Eastbourne, Edinburgh West, St Albans and Watford were all named as targets.

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A few mildly interested locals are pottering down the Burnham-on-Sea seafront past the “Fabulous Showboat”, that’s an amusement arcade not the Lib Dem leader, as Farron extracts himself from the hovercraft having survived intact.

Christine, a retiree who who has lived in the town for 47 years, does not intend to vote on June 8. “I don’t really understand it, it’s like religion, I don’t really get involved,” she says. Further down the beach, the Lib Dem leader is conducting TV interviews on the jetty.

They’re all mouthing off about what they are going to do and not going to do,” Christine sighs. “I voted to Leave. But I wish we had stayed in, in a way, because I think there is safety in numbers.”

She could described as a soft Brexiteer - exactly the sort of voter the Lib Dems want to bring on board.

But Christine, in an anecdotal sign that the Tory presidential-style campaign message is cutting through, adds:

“Theresa May is trying to do something though, isn’t she, on her own.

Farron, who had Margaret Thatcher on his wall as a child growing up in Lancashire, warns people to think about how they will “feel” if May wins a victory bigger than the Conservatives did in 1983.

“I don’t have to imagine. I remember it very well,” he says. “And that is why I feel with a passion that our country, and regions like this, are taken for granted by a Conservative Party that already thinks they’ve won it.

“There is a vacancy for an Opposition and we are boldly, ambitiously saying we are going to fill it,” Farron says. “You don’t need to agree with us on everything to believe that Britain needs a strong Opposition and only the Lib Dems have the fire in our belly and clarity of purpose to provide it.”

Farron says the prime minister has misinterpreted the Brexit vote. “I think Theresa May is guilty of thinking she is making decisions which are approved of by people who actually have a different view of what they want. They want to not be taken for granted.

“And there is no better sign of being taken for granted than Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker sitting in a vape-filled room stitching up their future and not letting them have the final say. And they should have the final say.”

And Farron quickly links May’s apparent decision to avoid any public confrontation in the campaign with Brexit. “If you aren’t robust enough to tackle that, how are you going to cope with Juncker?” he asks.

Jeremy Corbyn is a 'symptom' of Labour's problem not the cause, says Tim Farron.
Jeremy Corbyn is a 'symptom' of Labour's problem not the cause, says Tim Farron.
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Corbyn has confirmed he does not intend to step down as Labour leader even if he loses the election as expected.

Whether he stays or not, Farron says, is “up to the Labour Party”. But he warns the so-called moderates in Labour that their problems run deeper than the current leadership.

“The one thing I would observe is there are a lot of people in the Labour Party who are comforting themselves in thinking the leader of Labour Party is the problem. He is not. He is the symptom of the problem.

“Momentum has a grip on the Labour Party. The Labour Party has, internally, apparently no ability to settle on a single clear position on the biggest issue facing us in a generation - our relationship with Europe.

“Much as I have got a lot of time for moderate people in the Labour Party, the majority of those people who trooped through with Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn who were Labour MPs to enact Article 50 without there being any conditions whatsoever are the kind of people Corbyn would call ‘Blairites’.

“The notion this is just the Trots versus the sensibles, that’s not how it is. The Labour Party has found itself too afraid of the voters to actually appeal to them.

“There are two forms of leadership, one is where you see the direction people are going and you run round the front and say ‘me too’. That’s spineless. That’s Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. The other form of leadership is you say ‘I am determined to lead the country in this direction’.”

Felicity Cornelius-Mercer, the wife of Tory MP Johnny Mercer, protests with a sign featuring her friend Scott Mann, the local Tory MP, as Tim Farron visits her local school.
Felicity Cornelius-Mercer, the wife of Tory MP Johnny Mercer, protests with a sign featuring her friend Scott Mann, the local Tory MP, as Tim Farron visits her local school.
Matt Cardy via Getty Images

Hovercraft rides aside, “sensible” is how Farron wants his party to be seen.

The Lib Dems used to look across West across the water from Cornwall to Canada’s Justin Trudeau for inspiration on how a Liberal leader can take his party from third place to first. Now they have a new crush, Emmanuel Macron in France.

“I think Macron is very similar to us,” Farron says. “Macron is a sensible person, a sensible politician with a sensible agenda. France has often been a two horse race between Socialists and Republicans. And the two horses in that two horse race came third and fifth. The idea the things cant change is clearly not true.”

The new French president, Farron says, broadly shares his views on a regulated market economy, well funded public services and in tackling climate change.

“Those things were motherhood and apple pie in this country five years ago now we are the only people saying it. Being basically sensible is now a radical concept. The thought that being moderate in your outlook, making an evidence based decisions to try and help the majority of people, that seems to me an obvious thing.

“Is Macron’s success encouraging for us? There are now eight countries in Europe that are led by Liberals. And compared to Theresa May being one of only two hard-line Conservative EU leaders. That is encouraging for us. It is a reminder you can come from absolutely nowhere to really quite somewhere.”

Tim Farron sees a kindred spirit in the new French president, Emmanuel Macron
Tim Farron sees a kindred spirit in the new French president, Emmanuel Macron
Dominique Boutin via Getty Images

May’s decision to call an election, in a statement outside Downing Street at 11am on April 18, forced opposition parties to active election plans they mostly thought would not be needed for years.

As the news broke, Farron was boarding a plane. “I was aware the statement was coming,” Farron says.“If you had asked me at the point we went onto airplane mode from Manchester airport I would have said there is a seven in ten chance she was calling a general election, but I wasn’t sure.

“I thought about how I felt that day. And how I feel now. It has proved us right. We are the only opposition party who look like we are up for it. We were definitely more ready than any other opposition party.

“We called for an early election last July. You shouldn’t call for one without preparing for one. We had candidates selected pretty much everywhere and our manifesto all but written.

“Week one of the battle bus programme was ready in a top draw because we thought she might go in October.”

Farron’s reveals his battle bus, soon to be loaded with a stack of Dominos pizzas to feed the travelling press and staff, used to ferry the Crystal Palace football team between games in a previous life.

We are sat basically in Alan Pardew’s boudoir,” he reveals. “Don’t think too hard about that.”

Does the bus have a name? “Maybe we could call it Malcolm?” Farron suggests. “After the man who accosted me in Oxford.”


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