With evidence of the negative impact of George Osborne's Autumn Statement mounting, Tim Farron, the perpetually cheery Lib Dem president, refuses to put a positive glow on it. "I'm not going to bluster and say the statement was a huge step forward in terms of equality and fairness. At a time of austerity it is very hard to demonstrate the sunny uplands, but it's not half as grim as it would have been without us."
This is becoming a theme of the Lib Dem attack. The influence of "a bunch of liberal radicals" over the Treasury can be seen, he says, in the £5.30 state pension increase, progress towards lifting anyone earning £10,000 or less out of tax, blocking the scrapping of inheritance tax or the 50p tax band for high earners, and ditching the council tax discount for second-home owners.
Mr Farron admits he "took some convincing" to sign up to the Osborne cuts programme. "My instincts are undiluted Keynesian," says the 41-year-old, who jokes the one thing he has in common with Tory ministers is that they both joined their respective parties because of Margaret Thatcher. But he insists decisions taken by the coalition have ensured stability and low interest rates: "There's nothing progressive about families having their homes repossessed."
Even so, he is "sympathetic to people in the public sector who feel they are being used as political pawns", after last week's strike. Right-wing politicians and union leaders are "looking for confrontation" and "trading macho insults" but must not "resort to 1980s-style slanging matches", he says.
At Prime Minister's Questions last week, David Cameron twice branded Ed Miliband pejoratively as "left-wing", a line that Mr Farron says was "unfortunate and unnecessary". "What we need at a time like this is the binding of wounds, not the deepening of them."
As the voice of the Lib Dem grassroots, Mr Farron has freedom to speak out in a way that the party's ministers cannot. He admits that coalition can "compromise" a party's brand and sets out the key themes for a forthcoming Lib Dem fightback. "It's about being fair, progressive, compassionate. It's about putting freedom and the ability to make choices about your own life at the heart of everything... understanding the biggest bar to anybody's freedom is poverty. So our concept of freedom is very different from that of the Conservatives."
He claims that since the late 1970s, the Tories – and later New Labour – have bought into a culture of "greed being institutionalised, lionised, glorified and treated as a virtue". "We keep hearing things cloaked as an apology from Labour for things I'm not sure they need to say sorry for. What they do need to say sorry for is behaving like a bunch of Tories. They'll talk about things like 'we didn't listen enough'. It's like cheating on your wife and then apologising for being home late."
Tim Farron's straight-talking charm and joke-packed speeches have made him the darling of the party faithful, and he is often tipped as a future leader. "My preference is that we make such a success of all this and Nick remains leader for so long that by the time a vacancy occurs I'm too decrepit to be taken seriously."
Last Thursday while the House of Commons debated BBC cuts, Mr Farron was in his Lake District constituency, putting himself in the path of "regular folks" unhappy at what the coalition is doing. "There are people who like the idea of coalition in abstract but, in practice, how could we possibly go in with the Tories? My reaction is generally that I need daily counselling to cope with it."
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