Tim Farron will signal that he is prepared to go back into coalition with the Tories as he mounts a firm defence of Nick Clegg’s record in government, in his first party conference address as leader of the Liberal Democrats.
Farron will pitch himself in the political centre in the wake of Labour’s move to the left under Jeremy Corbyn. Despite the party losing all but eight of its MPs at the general election and dropping in the polls since then, Farron will declare himself proud of what the party did in government and express his determination to return there.
“You know, there are those that would like me to take this opportunity to distance myself from the past five years, to say it was all some dreadful mistake, to say I disagree with Nick. But I don’t and I won’t,” he will say on Wednesday.
Echoing the arguments of Blairites warning against Corbyn, Farron will say there is “nothing grubby or unprincipled about wanting to win, nothing noble about defeat”.
A senior Lib Dem source said the party was now economically closer to the Conservatives than Labour, which would have to change its Treasury policies before the Lib Dems accepted an alliance.
Earlier in the week Farron signalled he could be open to partnering with Corbyn’s Labour depending on the “arithmetic” of parliamentary seats. But Sir Vince Cable, the former business secretary, slapped that down, saying it was inconceivable unless Corbyn ditched his economic views of the last 30 years.
In his speech on the final day of the conference, Farron will stress that the Lib Dems “must be on the side of business” and remain committed to the abolition of thedeficit by 2017/18. He will take responsibility for the public spending cuts carried out with the Conservatives.
Farron’s speech is a gamble given some grassroots activists would like to draw a line under the coalition, especially considering Clegg’s personal unpopularity with voters.
Farron will set out plans to tackle the housing crisis as his number one priority, and pledge the Liberal Democrats will work with Labour in the House of Lords to block Tory proposals to sell off council housing and allow housing association tenants the right to buy. He will say the Salisbury convention – that the unelected Lords eventually allows the will of the elected House of Commons to prevail – is a “gentleman’s pact between the old, established parties”.
Ed Davey, a Lib Dem former cabinet minister, likened the government’s plan to sell off housing association homes to Robert Mugabe’s seizure of white farmers’ land in Zimbabwe.
“The expropriation is analogous,” Davey said. “I don’t know why there’s not more outcry amongst the Tories about this. I just think it’s a completely ridiculous policy … you can argue about the right to buy a council house, as it is state money, but there’s something deeply wrong about selling off somebody else’s assets.”
Farron, who is on the left of the party, was elected leader over his centrist rival Norman Lamb, who was considered too much of a continuity candidate. During his leadership campaign Farron stressed the benefits of immigration, his commitment to civil liberties, green credentials and opposition to the Iraq war. But Corbyn’s strength on these issues has led Farron to place more emphasis on the economy.
He has said he believes the Lib Dems can get back into government within five years, but Sir Menzies Campbell, a former leader, told the BBC the party had to be realistic and that it was more likely to take 10 years.
Lamb, who is now the party’s health spokesman, has warned the NHS is facing collapse within the next few weeks and proposed allowing local areas to raise taxes for extra funds. “I’ve been in the department. I have seen the books and I am deeply concerned. If we carry on regardless, the system will crash,” he said.
Lamb said it was a scandal that patients with mental health problems were waiting longer than other sick people and being sent hundreds of miles to get beds. “My challenge now to the government is: end it. It’s outrageous. It has no place in a civilised society,” he said.
On Tuesday, Lib Dems gathered in the main hall for tributes to the late former leader Charles Kennedy, who battled an alcohol problem. The party’s glee club was criticised for printing a songbook containing lyrics that made reference to him being drunk, but a Lib Dem spokesman said Kennedy’s family had not objected to the song.
This article was written by Rowena Mason, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 23rd September 2015 01.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010