Tim Farron has moved quickly to secure his frontrunner status for the Liberal Democrat leadership, writing in The Independent on Sunday that the party needs “a fresh start” after a disastrous general election. The party now has only eight MPs, down from 57 in 2010, after the Lib Dems were battered by the electorate for its record in the coalition government.
Mr Farron, a former party president untainted by coalition, as he never served as a minister, has long been viewed as the likely successor to Nick Clegg, who resigned on 8 May.
Writing on this page, he said: “Now we must move on. A fresh start. To rebuild the party we must start from the grassroots. That means the whole party must have a say in how we move forward.”
The 44-year-old has long harboured ambitions for the leadership and strengthened his support among activists by regularly speaking out against Conservative-led coalition policies. He was one of the MPs who voted against the last government’s trebling of university tuition fees, which Mr Clegg endorsed even though it broke a core manifesto pledge.
Alistair Carmichael, the former Scotland secretary, is another possible contender, even though he has previously ruled himself out of ever running. He could reconsider if he feels he has the best chance of stopping Mr Farron, with whom he clashed during the coalition.
Reeling from the party’s heavy losses, senior activists are convinced they now need a leader who can rally its centre-left base. Gareth Epps, a member of the powerful Federal Policy Committee, and Gordon Lishman, a member of the party’s ruling Federal Executive, broke ranks and told the IoS that they would be backing Mr Farron.
Mr Lishman said: “I’m coming to the conclusion that it is time for a natural campaigner who will go out with a passion nationally, and that’s a job description for Tim.”
Many in the party are also hoping for a coronation rather than a leadership contest, so that Lib Dems can get on with the rebuilding job immediately.
Leeds North West MP Greg Mulholland said: “There’s no point two of eight of us going around doing hustings in Bristol, Manchester, Leeds and across the country just as we need to get on with rebuilding the party. All eight of us have to be leaders now, but it is for the eight of us to back one person and then all get on with the same job of re-establishing the Liberal Democrats as a strong force in British politics.”
Mr Mulholland is understood to have been contacted by party members over his own ambitions for the leadership, but it is thought likely that he will eventually back Mr Farron. He believes that the party must select someone who voted against tuition fees which, of the remaining MPs, leaves himself, Mr Farron, John Pugh and Mark Williams.
He said: “To lead the fight-back, we need a leader not tainted by the disastrous decision not to oppose a rise in tuition fees, someone who can reconnect with people and be listened to as a strong voice for progressive, liberal politics. We need to decide quickly who that should be and then all get on with the fight-back; so we need to put someone forward to the party as a whole and ask them to back him so we can all get on with it.”
The Federal Executive met to discuss the timetable for the election and the rules for putting in place a deputy. The latter is selected by the parliamentary party and is needed quickly so that he can represent the party in the House of Commons while the leadership election takes place.
Senior party sources suggested that Tom Brake, the former deputy leader of the House of Commons, would be the sensible choice as he is considered to be fairly neutral between Mr Farron and Mr Lamb.
However, members of the Federal Executive were annoyed that its meeting had been restricted to only the two agenda items by the party president, Baroness Brinton. One said: “Wider issues have been excluded and this is a mistake. People should be allowed to let off steam about what happened. This does reflect the failure of this body to get its act together.”
Another concern is party finances, after the Lib Dems lost their £500 deposits for scoring less than 5 per cent of the vote in more than 340 constituencies, at a cost to the party of around £170,000. Much of this will be absorbed by local party branches and regional pools of funds, but head office will later have to provide financial support as part of the rebuild.
It is feared that the difficult financial position could force the Lib Dems to move out of their headquarters on imposing Great George Street, next to Parliament Square.
Lib Dem leadership contenders
The darling of party conference is virtually a rock star among activists, even though this fell-running, devout Christian is hardly a guitar-wielding bad boy. Mr Farron is the hot favourite as he is a supreme campaigner and he was not a coalition minister. In 2010 he increased his majority in Westmorland and Lonsdale from 267 to 12,264, and even in last week’s calamity secured more than half the vote.
The former health minister told The IoS in March that MPs and peers had approached him about a future tilt at the leadership. Another superb campaigner who even helped Mr Farron develop his canvassing skills, Mr Lamb can expect the backing of Nick Clegg’s closest supporters – which might not be helpful.
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