Tim Farron Interview: 'We Want As Much Europe As Humanly Possible'

Tim Farron
Britain's Liberal Democrat party leader Tim Farron in Bournemouth, England, September 23, 2015. Farron's party is pushing for continued British membership of the EU. Peter Nicholls/Reuters

As the Conservative Party's leadership election fires up into full-on House of Cards mode, while Labour undergoes a farcical family feud that's more reminiscent of Arrested Development, one party that's thus far stayed united after Britain's Brexit vote is the Liberal Democrats. Now, it is issuing a call for disaffected progressives from elsewhere to rally round each other, and they won't rule out creating whole new parties and alliances.

After leader Tim Farron pledged last Saturday that the next Lib Dem manifesto would commit the party to fighting for EU membership despite the referendum result, disaffected Remainers have flocked to it. But isn't Farron just pursuing grievance politics, promising desperate voters something they can't have?

" We accept the result," Farron insists, speaking to Newsweek Thursday after a visit to the Polish Social and Cultural Center in London. " But it does not have to be written in stone forever; there will be other democratic opportunities." As the economic turmoil of Brexit continues to unfold, he says "there will be a change of view."

Could that mean a second referendum? Farron won't be calling for that right now. "That is a disgraceful two fingers to the electorate. You have to accept the will of the electorate. That does not mean that as the facts change the public might not change their mind, and if they do we are there for them."

It's a slightly convoluted position, but if Farron can sustain it, it could be an electorally smart one. The chirpy Lancastrian has always been known more as a campaigner and rallier of the party faithful than a savvy media performer, but he's relishing the space afforded to him as the only unequivocally pro-EU party leader. It is shortly before Farron's conversation with Newsweek that Boris Johnson announces he will not run for prime minister, and the Lib Dem leader grins as he instructs a press officer to fire off an uncompromising attack line.

The pro-EU positioning has had some impact already among the U.K.'s 48 percent pro-Remain electorate, with Lib Dem membership up by 12,000 to more than 70,000 since Thursday. It's reminiscent of the party's mid-2000s surge, when under leader Charles Kennedy it became the home for progressives disenchanted with Labour over its war in Iraq. The comparison is one that Farron makes unprompted. "We now have more members than we had under Charles at the height of the Iraq war, so a real serious movement is building," he says. And, with one eye on Labour's disarray as moderate MPs battle with left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn, he wants that movement to be open to all. "We're a movement that can provide the moderate, economically competent, socially just, inclusive alternative to the Tories."

Farron has been calling for disaffected moderate Labourites to join him for some time, but what's different now is that he's not ruling out a merger with members of other groups. When Newsweek asks if he'd be open to combining forces with Labour exiles rather than having them simply join his party, he says: " A realignment is something which I would urge, not only something that's possible... We shouldn't be putting any constraints, straightjackets on what could happen."

Could such a re-alignment include changing names or logos? "I shouldn't conduct my offer in public," he says. "It would be wrong for me to be bouncing my party into any particular direction. But we are most definitely up for re-alignment, we are determined to be at the center of it, we are not so selfish to think it can only be about us."

Talking of new alliances, Farron's party also shares an affinity with Scotland's governing SNP, whose first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is looking to hammer out a deal that would keep pro-Remain Scotland in the EU. Would he support such an arrangement? "The notion that a federal part of a larger kingdom can have a different relationship with the European union than the whole, that's interesting isn't it?" But wouldn't such an arrangement make it easier for Sturgeon to win another referendum on Scottish independence, something Farron opposes? "If we protected Scotland's relationship with the European union I'd imagine it would make [independence] less likely."

Farron is aware compromises will have to be made, that his ideal scenario may not arise and Britain could leave the bloc. But he wants the Lib Dems to be known to progressive, internationalist voters as the party pushing for "more Europe"—as close a relationship with the bloc as possible, whatever the future holds. "For Britain's interest... we want to keep as much of Europe as possible whilst accepting the will of the people, frankly," he says. "If you believe some of the leavers they would say 'we were not anti-Europe, we were anti-EU.' Well, let's take them at their word. Let's have as much of Europe as we humanly, possibly can."