In an interview with the Guardian to mark a year as Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron attacked the prime minister, suggesting that she had put her personal ambitions above the needs of the country:
“She was pro-remain but I tell you what, compared to her Jeremy Corbyn pulled a shift. She did nothing. And one of the reasons we are in this mess is that too many people who could have switched people’s votes didn’t put their head above the parapet.”
Farron said that May, who was home secretary, was seen by remain campaigners as an authoritative figure who could have been persuasive on immigration.
“Theresa May could have made a very, very big difference and she chose not to. The Tories have stumbled into this mess because of a combination of incompetence, ideological obsession and people thinking of their own narrow careers rather than the country,” he said.
The Lib Dem leader also hit out at the tactics employed by George Osborne, arguing that the former chancellor’s “illustrative budget” that appeared to threaten tax hikes and spending cuts in the wake of a Brexit vote was a tipping point.
Farron said that among leave voters in the north-west he had spoken to since the referendum, “there was almost a unanimity of the thing that pushed them to leave, and it was the Osborne scary budget: it was the sense that I’m being bullied, by someone I don’t like anyway”.
Farron revealed that Liberal Democrat policy would now not only offer a referendum on the Brexit deal when it is hammered out, but also promise that on the ballot would be the option of “remaining in the EU”.
But he insisted the position was not about disrespecting the outcome of the referendum.
“Any MP who talks about frustrating the will of the electorate by blocking Brexit in the House of Commons – that would be wrong ... we shouldn’t be sticking two fingers up at the people, that would be a disgrace,” he said.
“Calling for an immediate second referendum because you don’t like the result of the first, I can understand the temptation, [but] that is wrong.”
But he argued while the 52% had voted clearly against something, they had not been given anything to vote for, pointing out that Britain’s relationship with the EU could be modelled on a large number of possibilities “ranging from Norway, to North Korea, and all the points in between”.
Farron pointed out that it was not yet clear whether European countries would allow tariff free access to the single market alongside restrictions on immigration.
“I’d be surprised,” he said, adding: “It would be a travesty if the British government imposed upon the United Kingdom a relationship with Europe they had not voted for … So the deal should be put to the people and as part of that deal remaining in the EU should be on that ballot paper.”
He called May an “interesting kettle of fish” after she appointed three Brexiters – Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox – to key roles involved in the EU negotiations.
“The Brexit trio at Brexit Towers ... I like to think, but I don’t have the evidence, that she’s appointed Fox, Johnson and Davis essentially saying – ‘you guys have screwed this up, you sort it out, your problem’. And maybe she is setting them up to fail.”
However, he warned about the divide in the country that had been exposed by the referendum, arguing that there was a “danger of metropolitan sneering ... about the 52%”.
Farron said he recently attended an event in Preston in the north-west in which most of the people who came were people who voted out, and their anger was less directed at the “Westminster village” than the whole of the capital, with a feeling that “London doesn’t get it”.
He also highlighted “a sense that they were being lectured to by the self-satisfied and the self-appointed”.
Trying to tell people that they had done the wrong thing by voting out was not the best way to tackle the issue, added Farron. “The point is that if it’s only people in this city [London] slagging off the rest of England for damaging their future, don’t expect to take anybody with you.”
But he said accepting defeat in good grace did not mean “you roll over and give up”, saying he wanted to lead the campaign to keep Britain inside the EU.
“The referendum result is heartbreaking to me and immensely damaging to Britain but it gives enormous clarity as to what the purpose of the Liberal Democrats is,” he said.
He admitted it was frustrating being the leader of a party of just eight MPs, when the Lib Dems used to have well over 50 Westminster politicians. Asked about being jeered in the House of Commons and once being described as “irritating” by the speaker, John Bercow, Farron said “I don’t give a monkeys”.
But he said the referendum result meant “all bets are off” for his party, pointing out what happened to Labour in Scotland when it was wiped out by the SNP in the wake of another referendum result.
Labour’s crisis was “tragic for British politics”, he added, saying he didn’t want to be a “homewrecker” but insisting his “door was open”.
“Britain desperately needs a functioning, progressive, economically credible, internationalist party that believes passionately about social justice as well. We can be the gathering place for that,” said Farron, who said he was talking to Labour and Tory MPs.
“This is a moment for realignment ... We recognise that people might want to do other things in which case we are happy to talk about that as well,” he added, saying that politicians from different parties who had worked together on the referendum campaign had found they had more in common than the EU.
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