Lib Dem leader Tim Farron today accused Jeremy Corbyn of “gun boat diplomacy” as he ruled out an electoral pact with the “hard Brexit” backing Labour Party.
Reports emerged over the weekend that an aide to the Labour leader had sought informal discussions with the Lib Dems over collaborating to hold off Ukip in the Stoke Central by-election.
Corbyn’s spokesman denied any approach had been made, and speaking from Stoke today Farron said he had received no “direct communication” from Labour – suggesting low level talks may have taken place.
The Lib Dem leader was clear that his party would not enter into any “progressive alliance” with Labour due its position on Brexit.
However, he did suggest that an agreement could be reached with the Greens to scale back any attempt to unseat the party’s co-leader Caroline Lucas in the next general election.
Speaking to the Huff Post UK on the campus of Staffordshire University in his first campaign visit to Stoke ahead of the by-election on February 23, Farron dismissed joining forces with Labour.
When asked if Corbyn was keen for a pact, he said: “If he’s doing it he’s doing it via gunboat diplomacy as I only hear it via the media.
“No direct approach has been made at all.”
He added: “The notion that we want to be aligned with any of the parties, or stand down in favour of one of the parties, who is backing a hard Brexit – well, what good would that do the national message? What good would that do those people in the country, who I believe to be the majority, who don’t want a hard Brexit.
“How can you have a progressive alliance with somebody who’s not progressive?”
Farron was much more receptive to the notion of an alliance with the Greens, and praised the party’s only MP for supporting the Lib Dems in the Richmond Park by-election last December – which was won by the pro-EU party.
He said: “What the Greens did, and what Caroline Lucas personally did, very bravely, made a difference in Richmond Park and my sense is Caroline Lucas herself is clearly a very strong force for good and I want her to continue to be a force for good and in parliament so I don’t rule anything out in terms of us talking in the future.”
The Stoke Central by-election was triggered by the surprise resignation of Labour MP Tristram Hunt, who is now running the Victoria and Albert museum in London.
Farron believes Hunt’s resignation – and that of former Labour MP for Copeland Jamie Reed – is “proof that many people on the moderate wing of the Labour Party have just given up.”
The Lib Dem leader – whose Westmorland and Lonsdale constituency borders Copeland – said he had not tried to convince Reed to defect to his party.
“I’ve never seriously asked him to the Liberal Democrats. I thought that would be rude as he’s a good friend,” said Farron.
While Reed might not be joining the Lib Dems, the party has seen an increase in membership since last year’s EU referendum. Figures released by the party claim it has more than 82,000 members – the highest level for two decades.
One high-profile new member is comedian Stewart Lee, who announced yesterday he was joining the Lib Dems, although he did caveat the news by saying the action is “on some level a hopeless admission of defeat.”
Despite that sting in the tail, Farron welcomed Lee to the fold.
“Stewart Lee is very welcome. I’ve been a massive admirer of his work for 20-25 years so it’s an honour to have him onboard,” he said.
Reflecting on the by-election, Farron did not predict what would be a remarkable victory for his party. Stoke Central is believed to have voted for Leave in the EU referendum by 65%, and in the 2015 General Election the Lib Dems finished fifth – 10,924 votes behind Labour.
The Lib Dem leader is “confident we’re making progress” in the seat, and argued a strong performance by his party could have an influence on the Government’s Brexit plans.
He citied the example of the Ribble Valley by-election in 1991, which saw the Lib Dems overturn a Conservative majority of 6,542 against the backdrop of a campaign against the controversial poll tax policy – which was scrapped soon after by Tory Prime Minister John Major.
“If an area that voted Leave records a big vote for the party that is campaigning against a hard Brexit, that’s a message that will be heard,” predicted Farron.