I wrote in dispatches about this yesterday, certainly Tim’s problem with the gay sex question. I will reiterate that I don’t think it is fair that he (or anyone) gets those kind of questions when all that matters is how they vote and treat people, yet that is just the way of the world. Everyone knew the question was coming and not having a simple and straightforward answer that would have ended that line of questioning once and for all was a whopper of a mistake.
Another issue I had was his interview on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday 30 April. Instead of trying to own what the party (and he) were all about, he tried to pander to a section of the electorate who would agree with many Lib Dem policies but don’t on the European Union question.
“I don’t want to go off on a little bit of a rabbit hole here, but you will remember that I resigned from the Liberal Democrat front bench about 10 years ago because I am a bit of a Eurosceptic”
The last seven words were poison. Instead of being the unabashed Pro-EU party that seemed to be the way the strategy was set up for, he tried to just gingerly dip a toe in the other camp. This would have surprised many who joined solely because of Brexit and wanting to fight it at all costs.
The USP for the Lib Dems in 2017 was quite simply they were looking to pick-up the Pro-EU vote. By trying to appeal to those who wanted to leave the EU, it watered down that message and did very little to help any MPs representing leave areas win. I think only Eastbourne and North Norfolk voted to leave but returned Lib Dem MPs.
By weakening that message, it didn’t appeal to gentle leavers but instead made the leader out to be less authentic. If you are leading a party that is trying to attract the vote from the section of the electorate who wanted to remain as part of the EU, don’t then try to say that deep down you understand the issues with the EU, not only that but to use the eurosceptic word. It just rankles. Own what you are (or at least what you are trying to portray). You can’t please all of the people all of the time, so it is better to try and please some of those people instead of making everyone look at you with narrowing eyes wondering what it is that you really stand for…
That authentic aspect is another where Tim fell down. I understand that he grew up in Preston. I think I heard that once or twice on the campaign trail. The ‘just a regular northern bloke’ schtick did not come across well. I know that is who he is but I have seen him perform much better than how he came across in those big important TV moments. You cast your eye across to Jeremy Corbyn and he owns exactly who he is and people like authenticity.
This is where Theresa May fell down. She didn’t come across as likeable (not that she ever expected to) but she also came across as scared. Nicola Sturgeon was taken apart by the special Question Time audience and they exposed her as a one-issue candidate. Tim looked (and sounded) like someone that didn’t truly believe some of the things he was saying. He was rarely on the front foot. I wonder why this was?
We’ve all seen Tim at Conference freaking knock speeches out of the park. He may not be the orator that Nick Clegg is but he does have great passion and he is able to win you over when he’s shooting from the hip. I felt that he was never fully unleashed during this campaign. Whether that was planned or whether it was because he didn’t fully believe in the second referendum offer I just don’t know but Tim can perform much better than he did.
Tim’s approval ratings dropped throughout the course of the campaign. Those that saw him as performing well started at 16% before the campaign started but ended at only 20%. Those on the other side of the ledger started at 34% before moving to 42% and 46% according to YouGov. This meant that he started on -18% and ended at -26%. Not great but even worse, 35% said at the end of the campaign that they didn’t know. So a third of people had no opinion, he’d made that little impact. That is a killer.
Jeremy Corbyn started at -58% and ended at -2%. Theresa May started at 24% and ended at -5%. This shows that the campaign is vital and that opinions can be swayed. By seeing a small but modest drop but still having a third of people have no opinion, that has to be put down as a big miss for Tim and the party.
Last up I was just reading some newspaper articles from mid-late April. Tim Farron himself was saying things like the Lib Dems have the ‘wind at our sails’ and that Labour were ‘holed below the waterline’. If they are both true (which seemed to be the case at that point) then how did Labour increase their parliamentary party by so many whereas the Lib Dems added only four compared to the 2015 General Election? How did the momentum shift so much? Did Labour nail it or did the Lib Dems crap the bed as it were?
I suspect it was a mixture of the two but it was Tim himself who was building up our chances and even becoming the main opposition. Instead we are the fifth most important party of government (the DUP may have two fewer MPs but they have a whole lot more influence). By his own measuring stick we have greatly under-performed.
The question is why and what lessons are being learned? Tim was not outstanding during this campaign, he probably wasn’t as awful as some are saying either. The biggest problem was it was hard to believe him at times but when you are trying to sell a terrible offer to the electorate (the second referendum) then even the best salesman would struggle.
Tim will no doubt stay leader in the short-term as we watch to see whether the Tory/DUP pact can hold up. If it doesn’t then he probably leads the party into another General Election. If it does though then Jo Swinson is looming and she has all the potential in the world to have a very bright future as the next leader of the Liberal Democrats.
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