Tim Farron: "Jeremy Corbyn has just waved a white flag over Brexit"
Tim Farron is in generous post-Christmas spirit – but don’t expect this to be extended to the Labour leader. The Liberal Democrat describes his disappointment at Jeremy Corbyn waving a ‘white flag’ over Brexit – and explains why his party will not be following suit
Tim Farron is explaining how proud he is of Theresa May. As we meet in his office, just days after the prime minister indicated that she was preparing to lead Britain towards a ‘hard’ Brexit and a future outside of the single market, it’s not a sentiment I expected to hear from the Liberal Democrat leader.
But Farron and May have a long history. The pair cut their political teeth side by side contesting the safe Labour seat of North West Durham at the 1992 general election, travelling from town hall to town hall in a campaign that both candidates knew was a lost cause from the start.
“It was such a safe Labour seat that Hilary Armstrong went off on tour supporting Labour candidates in the marginals,” Farron remembers. “So most of the hustings were just me and Theresa May, which was always entertaining. This kid from the university up the road against some sharply dressed Tory from the south in a blue suit, in front of an audience full of angry ex-miners. I don’t know who got more grief.”
He speaks fondly of his former sparring partner, who he says has always struck him as likeable, if “serious”, figure. “I remember thinking she was a very straight person. I enjoyed being on the campaign trail with her. But I can’t remember having a pint with her. She’s not anybody I ever managed to achieve banter with,” he jokes.
“But in a really peculiar way I felt slightly proud of her when she became prime minister. A very odd thing to say, isn’t it?”
Nearly a quarter of a century later, and Farron once again has the feeling that it’s been left to him alone to take on Theresa May.
Just before we meet, Labour release details of a major speech from Jeremy Corbyn setting out his belief that Britain can “be better off after Brexit” and announcing a watering down of the party’s support for freedom of movement. The news sparks 24 hours of confusion about Labour’s stance on EU migration but, whatever the details of Corbyn's new policy, Farron says it is clear that the leader of the opposition has now “waved a white flag across the despatch box” and accepted a ‘hard Brexit’.
“We see a Conservative government that has chosen to take the most extreme interpretation of the referendum result and drive us towards a hard Brexit, outside the single market, which is not only going to be massively damaging to the livelihoods of every family and business in the country but will rob the public purse of – on the government’s own figures – £220bn. And now you have the Labour party basically hugging Brexit.
“Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party – and we’ve heard it from Keir Starmer and Hilary Benn too – they’ve just given up.”
Farron has remained one of the staunchest opponents of Brexit since June’s referendum, and he has no intention of wavering in his conviction that Britain is better off inside the single market, and that EU freedom of movement brings with it huge benefits. The prime minister, he tells The House, has allowed a slim victory for Leave to be redefined by Ukip and “the far-right” of the Conservative party as a wholesale rejection of both – and the Labour party now appears unwilling to challenge that view.
“There’s respecting the will of the people and there is being completely spineless and not having the courage of your convictions,” he says when asked about Corbyn’s speech this week.
“I respect the will of the people, but real leadership is saying what you think and arguing the case for it, not just seeing the direction in which you think the majority is going and lamely running round the front and pretending it was your idea in the first place.”
He adds: “There appears to be a coalescing of views around assuming people know what the referendum meant.
“To take a 51.9% majority for leaving the EU and assume that it is the UKIP position with bells on is a complete leap and a perversion of the actual outcome. And only the Liberal Democrats have the courage to stand up and say that that is so and to oppose what I argue is a theft of democracy.”
For all the talk of Labour’s shift to the left, Farron says, the Conservative party has undergone a shift to the right every bit as drastic. “Theresa May, whether under duress or not, is taking the party and the country to an extreme position, not just on Brexit, but attacking the judiciary, attacking the civil service, attacking the basics of a liberal democracy and going beyond what is decent in a parliamentary democracy,” he says.
“The moderate, pro-business, sensible wing of the Tory party is now dwarfed. They’ve been colonised. There is all this talk about Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum taking over the Labour party. But the Trump/Farage wing has taken over the Tory party just as surely as Momentum has taken over the Labour party.”
Farron is clear that he has a great deal of respect for the prime minister, but describes her as a “prisoner of her own party” and a leader unwilling to stand up to it in the best interests of the country. “This is where I think Theresa May’s weakness is really shown,” he says. “I don’t think she is a Farageist, right wing populist, I don’t think she is Britain’s answer to Trump. She could be a strong leader, and stand up to her party. Do a Blair, dare I say it. Do a Kinnock. Show some backbone.It’s a big risk. But leaders who want to be written up well by history take big risks.”
May’s hint at the weekend that Britain’s future lies outside the single market further highlights her “indecisiveness and weakness”, Farron adds. “She’s waving the white flag by saying we’re not going to be in the single market before we’ve even got in to the negotiating room.
“If you really were acting in Britain’s interests and were fighting Britain’s corner, the last thing you’d do is give up on your major potential gain. You may be told by Guy Verhofstadt and others that you can only be in the single market if you’ve got freedom of movement. But it’s a bit weak for the British prime minister to go ‘oh alright then’. But that’s what she’s done.”
Farron has pledged to instruct his MPs to vote against the triggering of Article 50 in Parliament unless the prime minister comes forward with legislation offering a second referendum on the final Brexit package. He rejects any suggestion that he is attempting to ignore the result of June’s referendum, and says any bid to “kibosh” Brexit in Parliament or the courts would be “morally wrong”. But he adds that without that second vote offering the British people a say on the terms of the deal, the government risks the “utter destruction of trust” in the British political process.
“We don’t think it’s right to start this process with democracy and end it with a stitch up,” he explains. “We’re going to get a deal of some kind from the EU before we formally drop out. And I can confidently predict that it will be a deal that 75% of the British people felt they didn’t vote for. You can be sure the Remainers will feel they didn’t vote for it. And you can be sure that half of the people who voted Leave will consider it to be a betrayal.”
He does not deny the multiple impracticalities of holding a second vote, but adds: “Having a two referendum sequence is not how I would have set off. But I didn’t get us into this mess. And if the Tories say ‘oh we’ve had enough referendums’, my flippant answer is ‘well you started it’.
“You can’t, having started this botched mess, end it with a stitch up in whatever the modern equivalent is of smoke filled rooms in Whitehall and Brussels. You can’t start trusting the British people with departure, and then not trust them with destination.”
As for the Liberal Democrats’ own fortunes, Farron believes 2017 is the year his party can lead a progressive revival. The party begins the year in spirits after their win in Richmond Park, impressive swings in both Witney and Sleaford and dozens of council by-election gains in 2016.
“We feel like we’re on a mission,” Farron says. “Our membership is higher than it’s been this century, even at the height of the party’s popularity during the Iraq War. It’s growing in all parts of the country. Places that voted Leave, places that voted Remain.
“The interesting thing, in Richmond and in Witney, is there were a number of people who voted Leave who voted Liberal Democrat. This is not just about Remainers stacking up behind the Liberal Democrats, it’s about people who want a serious opposition that holds the government to account. People who voted Leave but think Britain can be better than this, and people who voted Remain and are appalled by the direction the country is going in, we are the party for all of those people.”
The first big electoral test of the year will come in Copeland, a seat which borders Farron’s own. The Conservatives have been installed as the bookmakers’ favourites to take the seat following the resignation of Jamie Reed, but Farron says the Liberal Democrats, who picked up just 3.5% of the vote in 2015, will “certainly have a good crack at it”. “We have a very clear and strong message, but we start a long way behind. So progress for us will look different to progress in Richmond,” he adds.
Since the referendum Farron has made no secret of his enthusiasm for a ‘progressive alliance’ of parties opposed to the Conservative government, and welcomed the decision of the Women’s Equality Party and Green MP Caroline Lucas to back Lib Dem candidate Sarah Olney in Richmond. He describes himself as a “huge fan” of Lucas, who not only endorsed Olney but even joined her on the campaign trail. “I think that she is a really positive influence in British politics,” he says, before adding intriguingly: “I want to help, in any way it’s possible for me to do so, to make sure we maintain that.”
Could the Lib Dems return the favour and stand aside in Lucas’s Brighton Pavilion constituency? Farron says it is “too early” to say exactly what arrangement the parties would come to, but adds, in carefully parsed language: “I think she’s an incredibly good thing and I personally would like to make sure she continues to use Westminster as a place where she can be an incredibly good thing.”
But as he accuses Labour of preparing to accept a Tory vision of Brexit, the Lib Dem leader sounds considerably cooler on the idea of any alliance with Corbyn’s party in future by-elections.
“I’m a pluralist, I believe we should talk to other people and not just live within your little tribal bubble,” he says. “The problem is the Labour party is led by somebody who is a massive tribalist. The only alliance Corbyn seems to want is with Theresa May over Brexit, and we’re not going to join him in that.”
He adds: “In a democracy we should have a choice. Whilst we are the only major party with a strong position challenging the legitimacy of a hard Brexit, and giving the British people the chance to have their say in a referendum on the terms of the deal, I think it would be quite wrong for us not to be on the ballot paper.
“Particularly given Labour are almost certainly going to fight on, at the best, a kind of Brexit acquiescence ticket, and at worst trying to ape the Tories. So it seems to me that building a progressive movement in British politics needs, at least for the time being, the Liberal Democrats to be at the forefront.
“If you think Britain should be open, tolerant and united, if you think the British people should have the final say on the deal that will define the next 50 years of this country, then we are the vehicle for you.”