Back in May, the bottom fell off the earth for the Liberal Democrats. They went from a party of government to the fourth party of UK politics. And that was only because they got one more seat than the DUP and, for all their local electoral success and hype, UKIP activism wasn’t turned into a Westminster presence.
So now it falls to Tim Farron to pick the Lib Dems off the floor after the hardest of electoral knocks. His brief is quite straightforward. He has to reclaim the centre ground from Labour and the Conservatives. And his job had been helped immeasurably by the election of Jeremy Corbyn, which clearly separates Tories from Labour. The Lib Dems – at least in theory – should have room for manoeuver within the space that has long been fought over by the two main parties.
Mr Farron is, perhaps, fortunate in being comparatively unburdened by expectation – his claim the Lib Dems could be back in power by 2020 notwithstanding. His is, of course, also hamstrung by a lack of MPs and will have to fight for attention in a crowded space already occupied by the Prime Minister, the heir-apparent George Osborne, Jeremy Corbyn and Nicola Sturgeon.
At the Lib Dems annual conference this week Mr Farron has been eager to set out the issues on which the Lib Dems will campaign, through which he hopes to revive his Party’s fortunes. Chief among these is opposition to the Government’s commitment to selling off housing estate properties.
But interestingly, Mr Farron hasn’t just set out what he wants to do. He’s set out how he wants to do it. And that means mobilising the still sizeable number of Lib Dem peers in the House of Lords to block contentious legislation in the Commons. This includes the aforementioned housing policy, but also Government plans for tighter restrictions on trade unions.
Mr Farron has maths on his side. The Lib Dems have more than a hundred peers and, with the support of the Labour presence, can comfortably defeat Tory legislation. They can, in effect, cause near legislative gridlock. But while the maths might be on Mr Farron’s side, the politics are not.
His predecessor Nick Clegg pushed for reform of the Upper House, which has been the subject of numerous criticisms in the media of late for its work and cost. Utilising the Lords will help advance the Lib Dems policy agenda but could ultimately undermine its standing if the Party is seen to be a roadblock to the elected chamber. Mr Farron will have to tread a fine line – and any interventions by his Party’s peers will have to be carefully coordinated with public communications.