The worst aspect of Tim Farron's leadership was the way he left it

Faced with a potential putsch, Farron leaves behind a party which faces a long fight
June 15, 2017

Nothing in his leadership of the Liberal Democrats became Tim Farron so ill as his leaving of it. Hustled into going by what looked to be the start of a putsch, he issued a lengthy farewell statement just as the full horror of the Grenfell Tower fire was sinking into the national consciousness.

The timing was not his choice, his team insists. The unexpectedly respectable Liberal Democrat showing on election night—50 per cent more MPs looks OK on one of the party’s infamous bar charts—should have meant a more measured handover. Farron can be proud that he has delivered 11 other MPs from whom to choose a successor, and they are no longer all white men. Jo Swinson has a good chance of becoming the first female Lib Dem leader.

But at some point, a departure had become inevitable. Some found Farron’s evangelical Christian beliefs incompatible with a role as figurehead for a party founded on principles of dignity and equality. Others (far fewer, I would guess) saw his stubborn defence of private religious faith as a courageous rejection of contemporary conformity. Either way, the “gay sex thing,” as politicos tend to call it, was damned confusing to voters and messed up the Lib Dem campaign.

Right back to David Steel, the Lib Dems and Liberals have been led by figures larger and more attractive than the party itself—think of Ashdown, Kennedy and pre-coalition Clegg. Being a standard-bearer for eccentric views, however important it is to defend someone’s right to hold them, just doesn’t cut it. But this alone does not explain how the Lib Dems ended up with an even lower vote share than in 2015, at 7.4 per cent down from 7.9 per cent.

An improved performance

Many misunderstand how well the Lib Dems did just to survive and slightly improve their performance in this election—the idea of replicating the Richmond Park by-election, with its hardcore Remain protest vote, in tens of seats during a general election was always fanciful. The fabled 48 per cent were never there for the taking, they had already drifted into acceptance, and the snap election came too soon to sell a “second referendum” pledge fashioned for a 2020 Brexit landscape.

Instead, a bizarrely polarised debate one year after a divisive referendum, and a campaign marked by fear of the two main leaders, bolstering defensive Labour and Tory vote shares, produced what psephologist Philip Cowley described as "the most successful squeeze operation in history."

Although the Labour surge washed away the hopes of Simon Hughes and others who hoped to regain territory they lost in the 2015 wipe-out, it was on balance a rather cheering night—not the final, fatal blow that some, including myself, were braced for even as the exit poll came in. 

In Scotland, four seats came back as part of the correction against total SNP dominance. South West London witnessed a partial recovery in party fortunes, alongside isolated pockets of robust success: a 17 per cent swing turned Bath yellow again. Norman Lamb held on in Brexity North Norfolk.

Three very near misses—including North East Fife by 2 votes, and Richmond Park to Zac Goldsmith by just 45—could have pushed the tally up to 15 MPs.

Can the Lib Dems fight back?

Farron, although personally untainted by coalition, deserves credit for preventing the post-2015 rump party from zooming off to the now-crowded left, and this undoubtedly helped the fightback—not least in attracting new members who seem to be politically homeless internationalists. Sober analysis of what happened on 8 June will, however, give party strategists, and indeed the leadership candidates, pause.

Lost deposits were actually up since two years ago, from 341 to 374, and the tally of second places has decreased substantially: 63 to 38. It seems clear that not just partial recovery, but mere survival, was due to super-efficient distribution of votes.

According to Matt Singh, the polling analyst, the battleground picture is “even less encouraging.” He explains: “After last time a 5 per cent swing would have netted 16 Lib Dem seats and a 10 per cent swing 42 seats (from various other parties). Now those numbers are 8 and 18 respectively. The problem is that a lot of the seats lost to the Tories last time haven't come back.”

Will they do so again? It will be tough. Look at Cornwall, where the Labour vote surged into second place in several seats, probably due to an anti-austerity message and the fact that party are carefully facing both ways on Brexit. This completely disrupts the traditional anti-Tory vote that has maintained the South West as Liberal heartland.

So the Lib Dem bird is not dead yet—but it is still grounded. And with Nick Clegg the highest-profile casualty of the night, it seems voters angry about the accumulated effects of post-crash cuts may still not have forgiven the party its erstwhile alliance with David Cameron.

Whoever takes over has a hard road ahead.