GENERAL ELECTION FEATURE: Searing loathing on the campaign trail as Lib Dems leader Tim Farron slams Jeremy Corbyn saying he ‘copped out’ over Brexit – while attempting to woo Tory Remainers
PUBLISHED: 20:17 27 April 2017 | UPDATED: 08:48 15 May 2017
The dark skies suggest foreboding. Rain has started to fall and there is a chill in the air in deepest Cambridgeshire.
A clutch of Fleet Street photographers and TV crews check their watches as they wait for a well-known visitor.
We are in a science park nine miles from Cambridge, home to high-tech companies brimming with talented people selling their innovations to the world.
The clock is ticking. Finally a car pulls up.
A familiar face jumps out – and everyone springs into action.
Tim Farron is welcomed by assorted dignitaries and representatives of the company he has come to visit.
The Liberal Democrat leader has time for everyone, and patiently chats with bigwigs and local councillors oblivious in his understated sober suit as the rain falls.
Serious thinker Farron – who contemporaries at Newcastle University in the early 90s recall earnestly studied politics immersing himself in student politics including hosting revered former leader Lib Dems leader Paddy Ashdown for debates – may have an underserved reputation for dourness.
But Farron, down to earth, Lancashire-born-and-bred Farron, with deep furrows in his brow, is in his element today – energised as he is – on the election trail.
For in an unfamiliar and ever-changing political landscape this election is different.
The snap poll called by PM Theresa May last week in the aftermath of the seismic aftershocks caused by last June’s EU referendum will see his party venture far beyond its comfort zones around the country.
The strategy is to convert those who voted to Remain in last year’s fractious political English civil war.
To seek out those true blue Conservatives from the shires who the party had never thought of as potential supporters while lambasting the listing Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, and attracting those of the red persuasion left cold by his leadership as much as his politics.
But first the political pragmatism.
Speaking exclusively to this newspaper earlier today in Melbourn, Farron says matter-of-factly: “We have an opposition led by Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer who have ‘copped out’ over Brexit.
“The Conservative government hopes and expects a coronation over the next six weeks.
“The Labour party are the worst opposition in history – and we the Liberal Democrats believe we can do better than that.
“Essentially, everybody knows Theresa May is heading for a colossal landslide.
“If you’re going to have Theresa May as Prime Minister, you do not have her there on a massive landslide.
“A landslide where she thinks she can take you for granted – because if you do your hospitals, your schools your police service will all be at risk.”
Labour supporters may fundamentally disagree with Farron – even if anecdotal evidence is that large swathes of local Labour councillors who do a good job at county council level up and down the land are fearful of being tarred by the electorate because of Corbyn’s underwhelming leadership at polling booths next Thursday.
But the crux of the issue relating to June’s General Election is that in places such as South Cambs and North Herts – places where Conservative MPs hold large parliamentary majorities – Tory voters opted to Remain in large numbers in 2016.
Take South Cambs. On a turnout of 72.2 per cent, 56,128 voted to stay in the EU – against 37,061 leavers. The situation was similar in North Herts with 42,234 versus 35,438 on a turnout of 78.3 per cent.
South Cambs incumbent at Westminster is Heidi Allen – who was elected to succeed former government minister Andrew Lansley who had held the seat since its creation following boundary changes in 1997, before his retirement from the House in 2015.
She currently holds a majority of more than 20,000 – which requires a swing to the Lib Dems of around 26 per cent. An achievable figure if you say it quickly enough.
Yet the Lib Dems produced an impressed 22 per cent swing in the Richmond-by-election, fought solely on a platform designed to attract disgruntled Remainers.
With that strategy acting as a lodestone in the minds of Lib Dem Westminster strategists, there is a genuine feeling from Farron – and grassroots supporters alike – that there is a chance of another national political earthquake occurring in June, this time in their favour.
Farron said: “The current situation is that the government have chosen to take us out of the single market.
“The eastern region in places such as Melborne Science Park is in one of the areas that will be most damaged by that.
“Everything has changed now in terms of how everyone is thinking politically – where almost anything seems to be able to happen, with the election of Donald Trump, with last summer’s Brexit.
“Lets not forget in Scotland the parties that are first and second were third and fourth two years ago.
“So we’re in a time where dramatic things are happening – where previously something so dramatic as a challenge like this couldn’t happen.
“Where previously it would have been naive to expect that.
“We have every chance of doing well across the country – we offer Britain’s the only genuine alternative to a Tory landslide.”
Although South Cambs Conservative MP Mrs Allen voted to Remain, the situation is different in the seat of Hitchin and Harpenden – the constituency staunch EU opponent Peter Lilley officially vacated yesterday after 34 years as an MP.
And it is this seat, among many others up and down the country, that Lib Dem strategists are also studying with interest – because the polling figures from last year’s EU referendum make for interesting reading.
A random selection of the 16 wards across the county show Hitchin’s Bearton ward voted 69 per cent to 31 per cent to Remain, Hitchin Highbury 62 per cent to 38 per cent. Hitchin Priory 65 per cent to 35 per cent. Even across the solid ‘true blue’ parts of the constituency – left without an MP once the experienced Lilley announced he was standing down yesterday – Harpenden West polled 68 per cent to 32 per cent to Remain with Harpenden East voting 62 per cent to 38 per cent to Remain,
Lib Dem local party activists have noticed a spike in new members since May’s announcement and there is a real feeling change is afoot.
Whether this can actually translate itself into the 26 per cent swing required to gain Lilley’s seat is another matter entirely – but Farron has Hitchin and Harpenden on his radar.
He said dismissively of Lilley walking away from Parliament after nearly four decades: “If Peter Lilley thinks that the country is in such a state that he doesn’t need to add his weight to it – if he thinks that Britain is not now sufficiently bleak enough for him to not need to be in Parliament anymore, then we’re in a bad way.”
Farron is gradually revealing his hand as he becomes an increasingly prominent figure in British politics this spring.
As the interview comes to a close he says goodbye with a firm handshake and a smile – despite the furrowed brow he does have a sense of humour and is reassuringly unassuming.
He then adds with feeling as if to underline his point: “This Conservative government have wrongly interpreted Brexit.
“There is nothing more dangerous to a democracy than a government with a dangerous majority – and an appalling opposition.”
With the Lib Dems showing such adrenaline-charged bullishness under the re-invigorated Farron one thing is for certain – the next six weeks could see traditional perceptions of party politics turned on its head as the political landscape is changed, changed utterly.