Farron: ‘Our message to voters must be about more than just Brexit’

Tim Farron speaking to The Yorkshire Post in York
Tim Farron speaking to The Yorkshire Post in York
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Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron speaks to Political Editor James Reed as his party holds its Spring conference in York this weekend

By any measure, the Lib Dems are still only scaling the foothills on the path they hope will lead back to the heights when they ran cities like Hull, York and Sheffield before entering government at Westminster.

But membership numbers are growing, the party has enjoyed council by-election success in unlikely areas such as Brinsworth and Catcliffe in Rotherham and Mosborough in Sheffield, and it overturned a 23,000 vote majority to win the Richmond Park by-election in December.

Paradoxically, the Lib Dems’ recovery has been fuelled significantly by being on the losing side in the EU referendum.

Remain supporters angered by the result and confused by Labour’s position have found a home with the unashamedly pro-EU Lib Dems.

However, as they meet in York for their Spring conference this weekend, leader Tim Farron will stress to activists the party needs to broaden its appeal.

“There’s a real move behind us, I think there’s a real sense of purpose and mission. Our members are absolutely fuelled up believing they are on a mission and they are,” he says.

“But what I am saying this weekend is that we’ve got to fight for the right of the British people to have the final say on the Brexit deal, it shouldn’t be the politicians stitching it up, the people should have the final say.

“But at the same time Britain is bigger than Brexit. Who has got the answers on health and social care, who has got the answers on tax and on business and having an alternative plan for how Britain should be? That’s what we want to provide.”

The Lib Dems have set out a distinctive position on Brexit by insisting voters should be given a second referendum on the terms of the EU exit deal

But this week’s demand from Nicola Sturgeon for another Scottish independence vote, just two years after the last one, risks exposing voters’ referendum fatigue.

Mr Farron insists there are fundamental differences which justify Lib Dem support for a second Brexit vote but opposition to second independence referendum.

“Let’s say something kind about [former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond].

“He put together a 600-plus page document, a prospectus for what leaving the UK would look like. The Scottish people voted against departure and the destination.

“The British people, did they have a 600-page document? No, they had a lie on the side of a bus. There was no destination offered to them. They are totally separate matters.

“The reality is the SNP lost their majority at the last Scottish General Election, an often under-reported fact. They don’t have a mandate to deliver independence.”

Theresa May’s rejection of a fresh Scottish referendum on the grounds that Britain’s energies must be focused on securing the best Brexit deal possible, seem to give her little room to call a snap General Election.

But Mr Farron continues to believe Mrs May could go to the country ahead of the next scheduled General Election in 2020, pointing to her recent climbdown on Budget plans for National Insurance contributions following opposition from her own backbenches.

“She was right to give way on the National Insurance contribution increase but it’s worth bearing in mind she basically hasn’t got a majority any more to do anything difficult. Even the good stuff, by the way, if there was any.

“Because all it takes is for seven or eight backbenchers with an axe to grind, and there’s lots of them, and she’s got no majority any more.

“She might well feel that given she is leading a party that is basically only held together by Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s uselessness, that she does want to go early.”

The economy’s performance has so far defied the dire warnings over the consequences of a Brexit vote issued at the time of the EU referendum.

And it is entirely possible that Brexit talks could still be ongoing by the next General Election and little has materially changed for most families.

But Mr Farron is confident the Lib Dems’ Brexit warnings cause will resonate with voters.

“If you’ve been shopping any time recently you’ll see inflation is a real thing. Wage growth is the lowest it has been since the 19th Century. There is a change out there.

“Let’s say the election takes place in May 2020, whether we are in the EU, out of the EU, or somewhere in the middle, the bottom line is we believe Britain’s best place is within the European Union on our terms.

“In the end this is about the British people believing their Government has betrayed them, believing their Government has sold them something which is not true and which has damaged them by the choice of Brexit.

“It’s the British people who voted for Brexit, just, but the Government chose this Brexit and it is the British people who can reject that Brexit.”