Sporting the same shirt and trousers outfit and similar close cropped hair styles, 57 year old Norman Lamb and the more youthful 45 year old Tim Farron – who being men, will of course not be described that way by the press – faced off in a hustings that saw more variety in their stock speeches and answers than usual.
Lamb went first and was on good form, with much more emphasis on his personal stories, using them to weave a convincing picture of his campaigning track record on issues as varied as freedom of information, arms exports and mental health.
He was followed by Farron who for the Social Liberal Forum audience dropped his usual opener of praising Nick Clegg and instead went for a joke about Richard Reeves, one-time and rather notorious strategy advisor to Nick Clegg. That was no opening quirk for through the rest of Farron’s speech were several other familiar riffs that previously have led to positive mentions of Clegg. This time, all the Clegg mentions were dropped through both speech and answers save for one very fleeting reference to the “Nick vs Nigel” debates. Out too was his habit of looking at the ceiling. Mostly.
Unusually, the opening applause – which is usually a draw or win for Lamb – this time was a very clear win for Farron, helped by his impressive oration complete with plenty of finger pointing in the style of Harrison Ford.
Unusually too, there were plenty of mentions of economic policy, reprising Farron’s great passion about inequality but otherwise producing a smattering of Vince Cable-like statements on investment and public services from both candidates – especially when it comes to improving social care.
On the question of cash for peerages, both Farron and Lamb agreed there was an odour that needed removing and – rightly – pointed to the underlying problems with unelected peers and party funding rules although – oddly – neither chose to say the answer in the short-term is to use party democracy: remove the odour of cash for peerages by electing nominees. Which after all is meant to be the party’s system.
Overall both were on good form with their very familiar jokes often playing especially well, suggesting that for most of the audience this was their first hustings – shedding a light on how little depth of engagement the leadership contest generates offline.
And did the Social Liberal Forum follow the official rules from party HQ on how to run a hustings? Of course not – and it was a better hustings for it. Even if it left hanging the question of whether Norman Lamb has swapped Mediterranean islands. He talked about Sardinia but was mute on Malta. I trust the Maltese Ambassador will be on the case soon…