Tim Farron, the favourite to succeed Nick Clegg as Liberal Democrat leader, has declared that his party only deserves “two out of 10” for its handling of the politics of coalition government.
In an implied criticism of Mr Clegg, the Lib Dem MP says the party should have blocked the Conservatives’ unpopular health reforms and understood the damage the party’s U-turn on tuition fees would inflict.
Speaking to the Financial Times ahead of the party’s spring conference, Mr Farron says the Lib Dems should “actively consider” something short of a full coalition if the May 7 general election results in a hung parliament.
Although he insists the Lib Dems will hang on to well over half of the 57 seats they won in 2010, he is already preparing to pick up the pieces: “What I’m absolutely ready for — you may as well be excited by it — is the thrill of rebuilding.”
The big question hanging over the Lib Dems’ conference in Liverpool, which begins on Friday, is what role a depleted party should play in the governing of the country in the event of a hung parliament — and whether Mr Clegg will stay on to be a part of it.
Although Mr Clegg insists he has no plans to step down, one Lib Dem minister said he “would not be surprised” if the leader calls it a day soon after the election. Some opinion polls have even suggested that Mr Clegg could lose his Sheffield Hallam seat at the election.
Mr Farron is odds-on favourite to succeed him: potential rivals such as Vince Cable, business secretary, Norman Lamb, health minister, and Ed Davey, energy secretary, lag far behind in the betting.
The left-leaning Westmorland MP’s views will therefore carry considerable weight in a hung parliament: he believes that, while another coalition is possible, the party should consider letting David Cameron or Ed Miliband form a minority government.
He says the Lib Dems believe that while “stable government is absolutely essential”, coalition is not the only answer: “You really have got to be ready to walk away.”
Mr Farron says the price for any formal deal should be for the Lib Dems to take ownership of one particular part of government policy. “For me it would be infrastructure renewal,” he says.
“It’s about the hard development of a kind of Victorian-style infrastructure revolution,” he says. “We’re talking about South Korean levels of broadband, 3m new homes — almost all of them affordable — over a 10-year period.” He wants a high-speed rail line built from Liverpool to Hull.
He says that if the Lib Dems did agree to a coalition he would expect the party to hold as many ministerial posts as now — even if the party has far fewer MPs. “I’m not going to give away any ministerial seats without a massive fight,” he says.
Mr Farron’s stint as party president from 2011 to 2014 gave him plenty of time to woo party members while keeping his hands clean of the dirty business of coalition government.
While he says the party deserves “eight out of 10” for the way it handled the coalition negotiations in 2010, he suggests Mr Clegg should have been more robust with the Tories in government.
“You’re not going to bring the government down on something like the NHS reforms if you say no, it’s not happening,” he says.
But Mr Farron insists the party was right to go into coalition at a time of national economic emergency in 2010 and says it would be regrettable if the party was now “punished for it”.
He says the UK Independence party, the Greens and the Scottish National party might draw the conclusion that voters did not reward parties that “behaved like a grown up”. He adds: “If that is the message that’s communicated — that parties that behave in a decent way get hammered for it — that is a great worry.”
Mr Farron declined to comment about allegations that the party’s former head of fundraising, Ibrahim Taguri, potentially broke donation rules.
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