Tim Farron plays to strengths with gaffe-free performance at Lib Dem party conference

Tim Farron

Tim Farron addressed the Lib Dem conference on Sunday and appeared on TV at least three times. It was his first appearance before delegates in Bournemouth since Saturday’s rally and the last time before Monday’s EU speech. He gets Tuesday off to prepare his Really Big Speech on Wednesday.

What with the party being perennially short of Big Beast glamour, it is tough being Lib Dem leader, even at the best of times. Four months after an election massacre are not the best of times. The leader is always in demand, if only to be lynched.

In a crowd-pleasing diversion, the latest ex-leader, Nick Clegg, will be dragged in chains before the conference on Monday to explain his role in the 7 May massacre. Thereafter he will be ritually disembowelled in time for the one o’clock news or invited to vote for the transgender and intersex health charter, which is on the morning’s agenda.

You might think the pressure is enough to drive leaders to drink. But no, Tim loves it, he really does. At one point yesterday he told a self-confessed political nerd of 17 called Peter that “politics is really exciting – not just the policy, the soap opera, the drama, the mechanics of politics”.

Peter, who favoured votes at 16 and had a booming Hooray Henry voice, had prefaced his question by announcing: “Just a couple of weeks ago I had my first …” He paused to catch his breath while the conference braced itself for some inappropriate disclosure. “… my first politics lesson in the classroom.”

Tim’s enthusiasm is not even dimmed by the knowledge that, like Clegg & Co before him, he is being stalked by the anti-leader. As an evangelical Christian, Tim knows the theological patter about such people, how they spread their false messages of hope on the Bournemouth seafront and have to be confronted.

Vince Cable (for it is he) declared on Sunday that his leader is wrong to say the Lib Dems can work with Jeremy Corbyn. Old Testament pronouncements by St Vincent of Twickenham are not to be taken lightly, but Tim took it lightly.

After Vince suggested a new centre-left party may be needed to deal with refugees braving rough seas and barbed wire to reach safety from Labour’s Corbynite civil war, Tim said there already is one. He is its leader.

Even before Tim’s cheeky chappie performance in the Q&A session, the conference was in good heart. It takes more than a near total wipeout to discourage your Lib Dem activist. Have they not acquired 20,000 new members since 7 May? New councillors elected too? And the biggest conference turnout in their history? They have! And the sun was shining outside.

As he fielded their questions (unlike Corbyn at PMQs they got to read their own) Tim played to his strengths: funnier than Clegg, more relaxed than Kennedy, less bossy than trained killer Ashdown, less tentative than the gallant Sir Ming. He’s a natural.

On the NHS, inequality or Palestine, he can sound like Corbyn. He is a Corbyn-compatible leader, a leftie Lib Dem who has been leader-in-waiting since Clegg first settled into a ministerial limo. So Tim thinks the NHS should have a plan, arrived at by consensus. He wants a two-state solution in Palestine, if possible via “a process of consent”. He wants refugees treated “like human beings”.

But he is also Corbyn-Plus. Not just because he wears a proper suit and a shirt (no tie) that had seen an iron but because he realises that politics sometimes involves two points of view and talking to people you don’t much like (Vince for example).

To the dismay of the media Tim was infuriatingly judicious on Sunday. He was kind about owner-occupiers as well as tenants, he is a friend of both Israel and Palestine, and he praised Norman Lamb, his defeated leadership rival.

It was a gaffe-free performance which ended on a self-deprecating note about his teenage infatuation with Wendy Smith, singer in 80s rock band Prefab Sprout. He still has all her records. It may not have been Gladstone’s idea of a peroration, but it went down very well.

No gaffes? It is always a challenge for Fleet St, especially when spoiled by a whole 10 days of Corbynism. But the lads can rise to an occasion. We’ll have to make some up.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Michael White, for theguardian.com on Sunday 20th September 2015 19.26 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010