Tim Farron had a lonely moment as he queued up to vote on Tuesday evening.
It came at the end of one of those parliamentary days when the opposition leader, Ed Miliband selects the topic on which MPs will speak and vote, and Government whips rally their troops to make very sure that whatever he proposes is rejected.
Labour’s chosen topic was the so-called “bedroom tax”. At 7pm, Labour MPs trooped into the “Aye” lobby to vote in favour of scrapping this innovation with immediate effect.
Conservatives and Liberal Democrat MPs filled the ‘No’ lobby. But Farron, who is President of the Liberal Democrat party, went uncomfortably where only one other Lib Dem MP, Andrew George, dared tread – into the ‘Aye’ lobby with Labour.
“My flesh crawled a little bit as I went through the lobby with them, because they have no alternative to the mess we’re in,” he said. “The removal of the spare bedroom subsidy is a symptom of a series of diseases that were caused by the Labour Party.”
He says that he has no objection to the principle that recipients should be denied housing benefit for occupying rooms they do not need – but argues the way it has been implemented has hit the incomes of people with very little money, and no realistic chance of moving to smaller properties. He argues that the penalty should only apply to tenants who have had a reasonable offer of somewhere smaller and turned it down.
In September, he was in open opposition to Nick Clegg on another issue, when he voted against his leader in favour of reintroducing the 50p tax rate at party conference.
Farron’s role in these sensitive issues has not endeared him to the Liberal Democrat high command. After the bedroom tax vote this week, one figure very high up the party, put it this way: “Which bit of the sanctimonious, god-bothering, treacherous little shit is there not to like?”
Any hope Tim Farron may once have entertained that Nick Clegg might invite him to take up ministerial office has long disappeared. However, the current opinion polls suggest that unless the public mood shifts, in 2015 there will either be a Labour government or a Labour led coalition. That result would almost certainly cause Nick Clegg to resign, triggering a leadership election, in which the party President is likely to be the favourite candidate of party activists who never liked being hitched to the Tories.
Unusually, Farron’s conversion to religion came after he had become involved in politics. His first political act, if it can be called that, was to join Shelter at 14, inspired by a rerun of Ken Loach’s classic TV drama Cathy Come Home. He joined the Liberal Democrats at 16, and became a Christian at 18. His current roles include the vice-presidency of the cross party Christians in Parliament.
There are policy areas where Christianity and left-wing liberalism sit together well, and others where they make an unhappy combination. For Farron the practising Christian, there is no dilemma in battling for the interest of the poor, or advocating high taxes for the rich, but he has had a trickier time when some issues that concern sex have come before Parliament.
When he was running against Simon Hughes for the post of deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats in 2010, the gay rights organisation Stonewall calculated that Farron had missed all but three of the votes that affected gay equality during his first five years as an MP, and in the ones for which he was present, he did not vote in the way Stonewall would have preferred.
In February this year, when the Commons voted to legalise gay marriage, the main vote was followed by another, on the procedure for getting the legislation through Commons, during which 55 MPs, mostly from the right of the Tory party, voted for a procedural motion that would have lengthened the time for the legislation to become law. Tim Farron was one of the 55. He argued more time was needed to consult and pacify the bill’s opponents, particularly those with religious objections.
These issues will come back if he is a candidate in a leadership election, but may not prove as big an obstacle to success for him as the shrinking of the Liberal Democrat party. The party has lost more than a third of its members since it went into coalition with the Conservatives. It would seem logical to assume that most of those who left did not like being in a Tory-led coalition, while those who remain do not mind, which suggests that by positioning himself on the left, Tim Farron has pitched his appeal to an audience that has been walking out in disgust.
He says that is not so. The “anecdotal” evidence he has gleaned from his constituency visits is that the party base is much as it was, only smaller. “Your average activist is an environmental, social liberal. If anything, the people who have stayed with the party are hard core: and you know what hard-core liberal democrats are like,” he said.