Chimpanzees, croissants… and Brexit: A day with the Liberal Democrat leader as he is out canvassing for votes.
It is 7.30 in the morning and we are all standing outside a hipster cafe in south London waiting for Tim.
Amongst the small, select crowd gathered underneath the railway arches – a sprinkling of pastry chefs, journalists and local Liberal Democrat activists – is the veteran politician Simon Hughes, who is fighting to win back his Bermondsey and Old Southwark seat from Labour. To pass the time Hughes, the constituency’s MP for 32 years before being ousted by Neil Coyle in 2015, draws my attention to the bunting of myriad colours and banners connecting Comptoir Gourmand to the surrounding buildings. ‘Look at the wide range of flags,’ he says. ‘Many of the businesses here have mainland European links. There are huge numbers of people who are EU citizens in this part of the world. We’re Europeans, we’re internationalists. This matters to youngsters. They want a more liberal world.’
Hughes may be right, but there is no doubt that we are still waiting for Tim to make a breakthrough with these idealistic youngsters. Indeed, europhiles of all ages are still waiting for the much-anticipated Lib Dem surge in the polls, for the party to capitalise on December’s extraordinary Richmond Park by-election victory, for Farron to win over the public with his clear, uncompromising anti-Brexit message.
‘It is a tough one,’ concedes the loyal Hughes. ‘But he’s doing well. And this is probably him arriving.’
Farron is visiting the bakery to try his hand at making pastry. As you do when you are a party leader on the campaign trail. Later, when we are squashed into the back seat of a taxi zooming him to a Five Live phone-in show in central London, he notes that politicians tend to be wary of doing anything with snacks. Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich, David Miliband holding a banana, John Gummer forcing a burger down his unamused child. That sort of thing.
‘There’s always something,’ he laughs. ‘I don’t care but over the years people’s whole credibility has been affected by these things. They can be very effective, sadly.’
So far, the affable Lancastrian has avoided any food-related gaffes. There have, however, been a few awkward moments. Like being confronted by an angry pensioner. Or trying to high-five a schoolkid – who then called him a ‘shit candidate’.
Or, most bizarrely of all, being caught on camera inviting a voter to smell his spaniel. ‘Yeah great,’ he chuckles. ‘That’s what you do if you put yourself in the way of all voters. I enjoy doing it. It helps if you like people. I like the opportunity to have a listen and put the alternative case. The spaniel stuff was just funny.
‘Be careful what you say when you’ve got a microphone on. I was having a conversation with a dog – which I’m entitled to do. You can’t do anything quietly or off camera. You must assume that everything you do is public and becomes representative of the party that you lead. Having said that don’t let it stop you being a human being. There are obvious things that it’s not wise to do, though – like eating sandwiches when you’re being filmed.’
After jumping out of the cab, and pressing the flesh in time-honoured fashion, he successfully navigates his way around the brioche pastry, expertly cutting it into shapes under the careful eye of Christian the chef. Christian then shows him how to cut the biscuits they are about to bake. ‘I was impressed,’ the young man tells me after Farron is whisked away for a chat with a carefully-selected group of supporters. ‘He’s a good guy.’
Farron’s genial, man-of-the-people persona is no affectation. He is clearly a people-person, and visibly begins to relax as a tray of croissants is brought over by Quentin, Comptoir Gourmand’s general manager. ‘I don’t really follow politics in London,’ says Quentin. ‘I’m just back from two years travelling. I’m more aware of politics in France. I’ve got a French passport.’ Has leaving the EU affected his small business? ‘Food always sells. People are always hungry. We’re not really affected by Brexit.’
Farron has, quite rightly, made Brexit a key issue, positioning his party as the voice of the 48% who voted to stay. He has promised to hold a second referendum on any deal with the EU, hoping to win over dissatisfied Remainers from both Labour and the Tories.
But after a friendly chat over croissants – ‘How’s it all going? Feels good out there? How does this feel compared to previous times? Better than last time? Things moving in our direction?’ – he is brought back down to reality by the press pack. Their set of questions are much harsher in tone, mostly variations on the theme of ‘What’s going wrong?’
The Sky interviewer puts it bluntly. ‘You’re still polling in single figures. What is it about you or the party that isn’t getting through? How willing are you to concede that you might end up losing seats?’
And will he resign if this happens?
During our car journey I ask about another poll – the one revealing that 52% of voters don’t actually know who the Liberal Democrat leader is. ‘That says something about being a first-time leader before you competed in a general election. That’s similar figures to Nick Clegg and Paddy Ashdown in their first real elections.’
He has a point about Clegg. His predecessor had a similar issue with visibility during the 2010 election campaign – until a fascinating leaders’ debate triggered the phenomenon that came to be known as Cleggmania. This time around, thanks to the increasingly weak and wobbly – and frit – Theresa May, there will be no potentially game-changing hustings.
‘You take what opportunities arise,’ he says. ‘2010 was that rare occasion you had proper leaders’ debates. We never had them before and we’ve never really had them since. That was an unusual thing.’
Interestingly, despite sticking dutifully to his plague-on-both-their houses script, his contempt for May can be contrasted to the warmer tone he adopts when discussing Jeremy Corbyn. ‘The Prime Minister has a cold, mean-spirited vision of Britain,’ he points out. ‘She is all about cruelty and heartlessness whereas Corbyn is all about fantasy. She has shown a real arrogance really and kept herself apart from the voters wherever possible – when she’s been in a position she can’t escape them she doesn’t come off very well.
‘So there’s that meanness to her, but there’s also an apparent lack of competence. If you can’t get your line on the manifesto right what chance have you got in standing up to Juncker and getting the right deal for us? I’ve known Jeremy – not well – since I became an MP and I like the guy for what it’s worth.’ He quickly adds that Corbyn is ‘electorally toxic’.
His message however, as he tells Nicky Campbell when we reach Millbank for the Five Live phone-in, is absolutely clear. Only the Liberal Democrats can prevent a Conservative majority. And there will be no coalition, no deals, no pacts.
It is during the hour-long show that the following bizarre exchange takes place between Campbell and Farron.
Campbell: ‘Were Adam and Eve real people?’
Farron: ‘My personal faith is my personal faith.’
Campbell: ‘Do we share a common ancestry with chimpanzees?’
Farron: ‘My personal faith is my personal faith.’
The Lib Dem leader is, of course, is an evangelical Christian. But he refuses to make what he calls ‘theological pronouncements’. It is the most uncomfortable moment of the day, approaching spaniel-gate in its awkwardness. Early in the campaign he famously took his time to say whether, as a committed Christian, he believed gay sex was a sin. As it turns out, he doesn’t – which one of Campbell’s callers finds very upsetting.
An irate ‘Phillip in Cornwall’ accuses Farron of ‘putting your desire to get votes over your faith – and I don’t know how anyone can put their trust in you.’ Tim sighs. ‘First of all I have been quite open about being a Christian,’ he replies. ‘Over the years it has become apparent to me as a leader of a political party that my job is not to get into the theology. My personal faith is just that. It’s not something that is up for discussion. It’s part of my identity. I am a pop music anorak, a Blackburn Rovers fan, a father, I was born in Lancashire, raised during the Thatcher years and I’m a Christian… but I will not force my personal faith on anyone.’
When he finally emerges from the studio, he recalls what the late Charles Kennedy said to him before he appeared on Question Time. ‘It was the best advice I ever received. ‘Tim,’ he said, ‘just be yourself’.
‘Occasionally I’ll make spaniel-related gaffes. But it’s better than being a robot.’
Anthony Clavane is the author A Yorkshire Tragedy, published by Quercus.