Tim Farron’s hardest task in his conference speech today was convincing people to actually listen. A test of how successful he was will be how soon into the 6pm news tonight he pops up on screen (following Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's reported split, the signs don't look good). So what did Farron do to try and get people to sit up? Banging the anti-Brexit drum was one of his main tactics. Farron promised...
'Not a re-run of the referendum, not a second referendum, but a referendum on the terms of the as-yet-unknown Brexit deal'
The Lib Dem leader did, to be fair, do his best to empathise with those who voted to ‘Leave’ but instead he’s more likely to have left them rather wound up.
Farron said many of those who wanted the UK to leave the EU were ‘my people’. It is true that Farron does have something in common with them: as he pointed out, he shares a home county with many of those who wanted out (in Lancashire, two-thirds of people backed Brexit in some areas). Yet the comparisons don’t go much further than that. Farron couldn’t have made it clearer that he thinks the Brexit vote is an occasion for mourning rather than an opportunity. In his own words, the referendum outcome is a ‘calamity’ or a ‘bereavement’. But he went beyond just name calling. After taking a pop at George Osborne for his tactics during the referendum, he dished out a bit of unfounded spin of his own:
'Three months on, it isn’t good enough to have brainstorming sessions at Chequers while investment and jobs steadily bleed away.'
The problem for Tim Farron? That claim just doesn't hold water. As Ross Clark pointed out in his Spectator cover piece, warnings from the Remain camp that a vote for Brexit would harm investment in the UK were rather scotched by deals such as Japan’s Softbank snapping up chip manufacturer Arm for a total of £24bn.
As for jobs? It's too early to really tell what impact the Brexit vote will have. But the signs so far suggest the news won't be bad: this month's fall in unemployment, for instance, had economists queuing up to say there had been no 'Brexit effect' on the job market.
Although Farron may have alienated some Brexit voters with his speech, he did try and reach out to another band of voters: those on the centre ground. Corbyn’s tightening grip on the Labour party presents an opportunity to Farron, who used his speech to offer some warm words of praise for Tony Blair. He said, like the Stone Roses, that he preferred the early work. Yet this wasn’t just a half-funny quip, it was an attempt to try and broaden his party's appeal to those who swept Blair into Downing Street. Farron touched on Blair's minimum wage, tax credits and NHS investment as policies he admired. And he also said he wants the Lib Dems to be a party that works across political lines. As Farron pointed out 'There is a hole in the centre of British politics right now' - and the Lib Dem leader is convinced he's the one to fill it.