The Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, has accused David Cameron of trying to get maximum headlines out of the story of the three-year-old Syrian refugee who was pictured drowned on a beach, as he called for the UK to opt into the EU-wide quota system.
In his first speech as leader to his party’s conference on Wednesday, Farron attacked Cameron by saying he initially ignored the humanity of refugees and was “stuck in media management mode, following not leading”.
He said that changed when the photograph of a “body of a three-year-old boy face down in the surf” made the front pages of newspapers.
“What we’ve had from David Cameron is a careful calibration of what it will take to manage that story, the minimum effort for the maximum headlines,” he told the packed hall of activists in Bournemouth.
He said Cameron’s subsequent proposals to take some more refugees from Syria but not to participate in the EU rescue scheme “will not directly help a single one of the hundreds of thousands currently on the move across Europe”.
“It’s pitiful and embarrassing and makes me so angry,” Farron added, arguing the UK should be participating in the EU scheme, which would mean Britain taking in around 17,000 refugees. “If we don’t act now, many more will die,” he said.
Labour has called for the UK to offer some help to European countries such as Hungary struggling to accommodate refugees fleeing from Syria.
But Andy Burnham, the shadow home secretary, has said he “understands the government’s reluctance to opt into the proposed quota system”.
Farron also used his conference speech to pitch his party in the centre ground, with Labour perceived as having moved to the left by electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader.
The senior Lib Dem Sir Menzies Campbell has said he thinks his party could take 10 years to recover from its severe losses at the general election.
But Farron indicated he was prepared to go into coalition with the Conservatives again in 2020 as the party should not be embarrassed about seeking power.
He also mounted a firm defence of Nick Clegg’s leadership, despite the party’s loss of all but eight MPs at the election and drop in the polls since then to just 6%.
A senior Lib Dem source said the party was closer economically to the Tories than Labour, which would have to shift its economic policy significantly before it could form an alliance with Farron’s party.
Previously, Farron has been critical of the coalition, giving the leadership a score of two out of 10 for its handling of the politics, and hoped to carve out distinctive ground for the party by being pro-immigration and civil liberties.
But since Corbyn’s victory, he appears to have shifted back toward the centre, taking responsibility for the coalition’s economic record, which includes billions of pounds of public spending cuts.
Farron has suggested during the four-day conference that Labour centrists could defect to his party, and used his speech to urge liberal-minded progressives from other parties to join the Lib Dems.
However, in an embarrassment for the new leader, the only defection so far has been that of a Lib Dem councillor crossing over to Corbyn’s Labour on the eve of his conference speech.
Jennifer Churchill told the BBC’s Daily Politics: “I feel he [Farron] is not confident himself in his economic understanding. That’s why he’s saying one thing one day and another day he’s saying another. And this weekend it feels like he’s parroting Tory propaganda.”
Farron also talked about his personal history, including his father’s employment in the building trade and DJing at weekends, and his mother working on the checkout at a department store before going to university at the age of 33 and becoming a university lecturer.
He also joked about watching The X Factor even though it was a “terrible programme” and having to “cleanse” himself by listening to BBC Radio 6 music for two hours afterwards.
Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow minister without portfolio, poured scorn on the idea that the public kicked the Lib Dems out of office because they didn’t know enough about them.
“The truth is the public knew exactly what the Lib Dems stood for and judged them on their record in government,” he said. “The Liberal Democrat leader cannot rewrite history. The Lib Dems are a party which promised to scrap tuition fees and then trebled them. They are a party which promised fairer taxes and then gave millionaires a tax cut. They are a party which backed the Tories all the way for five years.
“The party leader may have changed but you still can’t trust the Lib Dems.”
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