Lamb pulls off a surprise at Lib Dem hustings, but race is still Farron’s to lose

Norman Lamb pulled off a surprise at the main London leadership hustings in the race to be Liberal Democrat leader when his opening statement got more applause than Tim Farron’s by some margin.

However, by the time we got to the final statements, Tim was back in the lead in the applause stakes, helped by a canny final line about wanting to lead the Lib Dems back into power… so that great people like Norman could be a minister again.

That is really the leadership race so far in miniature. Norman pulling off the occasional smart move – including the revelation that he threatened to resign as a minister in order to ensure mental health waiting times were introduced – but never opening up enough off a gap for long enough to seriously upset Tim’s position as favourite.

Norman’s performance at hustings is, however, improving noticeably so there is very much life in the race, although his campaign team still don’t seem to be able to match the volume of output from Tim’s which with its social media presence, pamphlets on organisation and beliefs and speeches is running at a much higher tempo.

Moreover, Tim continues to have an edge in oratory. That was most noticeable in a question at the hustings on immigration, where both gave basically the same answer. On paper, Norman’s answer was the better as it involved personal stories and the NHS whilst Tim’s involved a series of statistics. But when delivered in person, what won out was Tim’s relentless enthusiasm of the sort that would make him counting out aloud a pile of 2,395 paperclips a matter of tense drama.

Both made mistakes. Tim Farron’s support for full fiscal autonomy for London is unlikely to survive close scrutiny given what it would mean about redistributing money within the UK towards one of the richest areas, whilst Norman Lamb’s confession that he didn’t know how the party committees worked was odd coming from someone who chaired one of the main ones during a chunk of the last Parliament (the Federal Policy Committee).

Tim’s record of rebelling on some votes gives him more scope to talk credibly about the good the party did in government, as he demonstrated clearly in an answer about tuition fees. It is only his record of having rebelled that gives him the ability to be heard on the substance of the policy the Lib Dems introduced and how good it is compared to what Labour wanted.

Tim Farron also continued his campaign-in-reverse of tacking to the centre (see explanation here) and was far more effusive than Norman about the party’s record in government, praising Nick Clegg strongly and adding: “There is no mileage in repudiating what we have done together”. Tactically smart as critics of coalition have no other candidate to turn to and the party’s new members generally are not critics of it.

Yet in the small straw poll I conducted afterwards, there was more sign of swing voters moving over to Norman Lamb rather than Tim Farron, albeit on a scale to keep Tim’s camp on their toes rather than to cause panic.

(Norman Lamb does however win the Chris Huhne Memorial Prize for getting a mention of Malta and its highly centralised government into a Lib Dem hustings. Many long-suffering close followers of the last Clegg-Huhne contest remember little else aside from Chris Huhne saying Malta again, and again, and again. Malta lives on in Norman’s safe hands.)

Here are their two opening statements (note – if you have problem with the audio on either, you can try instead the recordings I made at a later hustings):

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