There’s a new game at Lib Dem leadership hustings: guess the implausibly shoe-horned answer

Another hustings navigated; another event passed which doesn’t upset Tim Farron’s role as front runner in the Liberal Democrat leadership race.

That was the main message from Saturday’s hustings at the Local Government Conference with the slightly over-running Tim Farron opening speech and very over-running Norman Lamb one:

The volume and rapidity of hustings meetings means that, by necessity, both Tim Farron and Norman Lamb are sticking to pretty much the same stock script. That makes comparing their performances between different hustings a little like Kremlinology of old. What significance to read into the fact that in London Lamb was drinking Red Bull but in Manchester it was water? Or that suitless-in-London Farron went for full tie and suit combo in Manchester?

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... more

For hardened leadership hustings veterans there is now – aside from the game of ‘how long until the first mention of Malta?’* – the sport of ‘guess the answer’. Both Farron and Lamb have a relatively limited number of points they try to work into each Q+A session even though the questions themselves are ranging quite widely. You can therefore play a game of trying to guess which answer is going to be shoehorned into which not-quite-relevant question as you go – and in Manchester Lamb won the Brazen Shoehorn Award for turning a question about the anti-austerity march in London into an opportunity to talk about cycling policy on the Continent.

During the event both Farron and Lamb were showing the weaknesses as in London – Farron oratorically accomplished but not tight enough in his answers to avoid stumbles (this time, forgetting to mention London in the list of places facing big elections next year) and Lamb full of personal stories about his achievements but not quite having the delivery to bring them to life. That’s best illustrated by their relative records at winning their own constituencies. Lamb’s record is the more impressive, starting from a much weaker position, yet it’s Farron’s telling of his own story that frequently makes it sound the far more impressive and inspirational.

Lamb wasn’t up to his London standards, which had been his best performance to date – possibly because of distractions with having to suspend two of his campaign team, and Farron took an odd liking to looking at the ceiling. Impressive chandeliers, but chandeliers don’t vote Tim.

Overall though, both were good and as before the overwhelming audience reaction was that both would make good leaders for the party. The question is which will be better, not whether or not one is up to the job.

All of which is a way of indicating that there wasn’t much difference of substance between the two. Farron pushed hard on praising Clegg, praising what the party did in coalition and wanting to lead the party back into government, leaving little strategic space for Lamb to say anything different. Only on Saturday’s anti-austerity march did a hint of more substantive difference surface with Farron saying he would have joined the march if it weren’t for a day of hustings and Lamb side-stepping a direct answer.

Only a small difference, if one that hints are some deeper disagreements so far played down rather than played up. Which is the leadership contest all over so far.

P.S. Given the way all sorts of people are putting videos of each candidate’s speeches online, quite what is the point of party hustings rules which require all the other candidates to leave the room when one of them makes their opening speech? Another issue that strengthens the case for reforming the party’s hustings rules (if indeed it ever made sense – it’s not as if being able to respond to the speech a rival has just given is a useful skill for politicians…).

* Enjoy it while you can. After Nick Clegg became Deputy Prime Minster and started adopting Chris Huhne’s line about how centralised Maltese government is, the Maltese ambassador wrote a strongly worded letter pointing out their extensive devolution programme. Malta’s time as Europe’s most centralised state may be coming to an end.

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