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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Was Tim Farron pushed or did he jump?

In 2006 I was in London with the Welsh Liberal Democrats Assembly group at a meeting with Welsh MPs and Lords when it became clear that something unusual was happening. As a group we strode over to Cowley Street for an extraordinary press conference at which Charles Kennedy announced his resignation as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

Unusually for the Liberal Democrats, the men in suits had insisted that Kennedy's lifestyle was no longer compatible with leading a major political party and had forced him out. I recall that I remained angry with the Parliamentary Party for many years afterwards, and it was only when Nick Clegg took the reins that that anger subsided.

During the party's last leadership contest in 2015, I was torn as to whom to support. I delayed my decision for as long as possible and only plumped for Tim Farron because I considered he would be a better campaigner, somebody who would go out to the constituencies and rally the troops. After the debilitating result of the 2015 General Election such an approach was essential in my view.

I was not disappointed. Tim proved every bit the campaigner I had hoped for, but his impact on the national stage was limited. To an extent that was because the media felt that it could now ignore the Liberal Democrats, but there was no getting away from the suspicion that a more heavyweight leader such as Vince Cable would have forced themselves into the limelight through their experience and gravitas.

That suspicion was validated on the doorsteps, as voter after voter told me that they were not convinced by Tim Farron as a leader. Their reasons for this were largely undefined, but there is no doubt in my mind that Tim did not have a good election. He was plagued by massively unfair questions about his Christianity, a situation he exacerbated by his uncertainty as to how to deal with it. In addition he failed to make any real impact in the face of a sustained two party squeeze.

I am certain that the return to the Parliamentary Party of a number of 'big beasts' contributed to Tim's decision to resign. The e-mails to members appear to track the progress of the behind the scenes discussion.

It started with an email asking us 'What's next?' in which Tim expressed his determination that the new group of MPs will be a constructive opposition, holding the Conservatives to account. There was an email announcing that there would now be a Deputy Leader elected by the MPs and then a final communication headed 'My Resignation'.

In his resignation statement, Tim said: “I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in. In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society."

He is right but as far as I am aware that suspicion did not come from the vast bulk of the membership, who know that Tim's voting record on matters of conscience has been exemplary, and who accepted that his personal views did not exclude him from leadership provided that he acted as the good Liberal we all know he is.

It is interesting that no other leader was subjected to the sort of questioning directed at Tim Farron. Perhaps Tim was right in his judgement that if he remained as leader then this would continue and it would distract from the Party's key messages.

One cannot help but think however, that the final decision was taken because Tim could not command the confidence of the Parliamentary Party after a bruising election and a result which many felt was at the lower end of acceptable.

Whatever the reason, the decision to fall on his sword so quickly so as to avoid protracted controversy that might have damaged the party, is to Tim's credit. His legacy is a much strengthened party, with record membership and a larger group of MPs.

If 2015 was a low point, 2017 will be judged as the election when the Liberal Democrats put themselves back on the electoral map as a force to be reckoned with. Tim Farron must take most of the credit for that. The party is in debt to him for that achievement.
Good piece. I always had severe doubts about Farron, and feel that the supposed religious concerns - as you imply - are simply a cover-up for the arrival of the "big beasts".
Much as I would love to see a female leader, it looks like it will be Ed Davey, or Vince.
I would certainly hope it might be the latter: he is so nationally recognised and respected well outside of the Party.
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