The Liberal Democrat leader is the one Number 10 increasingly fears
Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
A hoary old cliché, true enough, but for one man in particular Theresa May’s mother of all U-turns means opportunity knocks.
Step forward, Tim Farron, leader of the Lib Dems and principled champion of the 48%.
OK, he’s hardly likely to be striding through the doors of Number 10 as prime minister come June 9. But he might well be the man denying Theresa May a landslide victory, keeping the Remain flame burning and ensuring Jeremy Corbyn’s demise as the disastrous Brexit sellout leader of the Labour Party.
While Corbyn predictably dithered and ducked the cameras after Theresa May dropped her Brexit election bombshell, Farron was fast out of the traps, plugged into the media and declaring: ‘If you want to avoid a disastrous Hard Brexit. If you want to keep Britain in the single market. If you want a Britain that is open, tolerant and united, this is your chance. Only the Liberal Democrats can prevent a Conservative majority.’
And, while the polls presently predict a whopping victory for May, Tory strategists privately fear that a growing Lib Dem revival poses a bigger threat than Labour.
It’s a fear based on firm evidence that the Lib Dems have eclipsed Labour as the party of passionate pro-Remainers.
May’s apparent intent to make this a single issue Brexit election couldn’t play better for the Lib Dem leader.
Farron – who declares himself ‘incredibly proud’ to be dubbed the nation’s ‘Remoaner-in-Chief’ by Britain’s more zealous pro-Brexit newspapers – can point to statistics such as his party’s soaring membership.
‘What’s the point of the Lib Dems?’ That was the question many asked after it was reduced to an eight MP rump as 49 Lib Dems MPs lost their seats at the last general election. But the narrow Leave victory gave the Lib Dems a sharp point and no one is seriously posing that question anymore.
Under Farron’s finely focused leadership the party has regained relevance and credibility.
It’s significant to remember, too, that Farron didn’t serve as a minister in the Coalition Government with the Tories that did so much to decimate the Lib Dems parliamentary representation and electoral popularity.
Indeed, he regularly ruffled feathers by speaking his mind about the damage it was doing to the party’s cause and rebelled by voting against the Coalition’s most unpopular policies, such as the bedroom tax and Nick Clegg’s toxic U-turn on tuition fees.
Famously,Farron’s principled rebellion on the bedroom tax prompted one senior Lib Dem figure to damn him with, ‘Which bit of the sanctimonious, god-bothering, treacherous little shit is there not to like?’
For his part Farron had branded the bedroom tax ‘the poll tax of our generation’ and argued the Lib Dems should have ‘died in the ditch’ rather than abandon its long-standing pledge not to raise tuition fees in order to join the Coalition.
But now Farron and his strongly united team are convinced there is a gap in Britain’s political market that they are equipped to fill and which could yet thwart May’s quest for the holy grail of a Thatcheresque landslide.
It’s a belief centred on being able to win over voters from opposite directions; pro-European Labour supporters disillusioned both by the party’s decision to hop into bed with the Tory government on triggering Article 50 and by Corbyn’s lacklustre, vote-losing leadership generally. Simultaneously they hope to tempt pro-Remain Tory voters hostile to leaving the single market and plunging he UK into the dark unknown of Hard Brexit.
Married to wife Rosemary and father of two sons and two daughters, the elfin-faced Farron lives in the heart of his picturesque Westmoreland and Lonsdale constituency where he bucked the Lib Dems 2015 nightmare by sailing home with a 51.5% majority.
Generally to the left of the movement, the 45-year-old, Preston-born Farron has an egalitarian back story to delight spin doctors everywhere.
As one of his closest party confidants puts it: ‘Tim knows he’s going to be viciously targeted during the campaign but it’s a price he’s willing to pay because of his conviction Brexit is destined to prove disastrous for Britain. He’s been vilified for arguing the case for a second referendum when the terms and impact of Brexit become known and realises that this general election U-turn offers the nearest thing to that.’
A staunch Blackburn Rovers fan, Farron was raised by a single mother who attended a state school before studying politics at Newcastle University where he admits to having ‘dabbled with cannabis’. He joined the Lib Dems aged just 16 and credits his interest in politics to watching ‘Cathy Come Home’ as a child.
Before finally winning the previously Tory-held Lake District seat of Westmoreland and Lonsdale in 2005 at the age of 34, Farron, at the time a university academic, had previously made two unsuccessful parliamentary bids.
Reminiscent of Blair, Farron also once aspired to be a rock star. As the frontman for a band variously known as Fred the Girl and The Voyeurs, the outfit – dubbed by some a ‘fourth rate New Order’ – did briefly land a recording contract with Island Records and curious voters can still track down the odd video of them in action on YouTube.
With an odd passion for wearing Doc Martens at all times, Farron is a strict vegetarian who isn’t fazed by those who attempt to label him ‘eccentric’.
Farron’s strong Born Again Christian faith is likely to provide fodder for political and media enemies alike in what is destined to be an election dogfight. He candidly admitted to ‘consulting the Almighty’ before deciding to seek the Lib Dem leadership mantle after Nick Clegg’s resignation.
To the dismay of Stonewall among others, he’s abstained on a series of gay rights votes in parliament, including adoption by homosexual couples and fertility treatment for lesbians. He was also branded ‘lukewarm’ on gay marriage and has backed longer waiting times on abortion.
But in a general election focused overwhelmingly on Brexit those issues are unlikely to prove damaging the way they might otherwise have done.
One thing is abundantly clear. Both Tories and Labour would be fools not to take Farron and the Lib Dem party he’s revitalised seriously.
•PAUL CONNEW is a media commentator, broadcaster and former editor of the Sunday Mirror