Farron faces two big challenges in Bournemouth: detoxifying and Trident

Facing his first party conference in Bournemouth as Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron faces two main challenges. The first is the obvious – his leader’s speech and his chance to set out a direction for the party in a world where Jeremy Corbyn in Labour leader and international humanitarianism has sped up the political agenda. Does he have a convincing strategy for how the party gets public attention, and for how to detoxify the party’s reputation – especially bearing in mind how rare it is for a political party to detoxify within one Parliament?

The second challenge is the Trident motion up for debate. It is straightforwardly anti-Trident. It doesn’t directly call for a unilateralist policy but instead uses wording such as, “Conference believes that British possession of nuclear weapons is inappropriate and unhelpful to today’s needs”. At a stretch, you could argue that the best way to turn that belief into action is via multilateralism rather than unilateralism. But the tone is clear – and whether through Federal Conference Committee (FCC) today accepting an amendment or through a separate vote, there will almost certainly be a clear multilateralist versus unilateralist vote.

Which makes for a big challenge for Tim Farron as he is not a unilateralist. There may be plenty of common ground in the party on opposing an expensive full Trident review, but there will be a vote at conference which puts his support for multilateralism to the test – and also puts his leadership and choice of style to the test.

Does he copy Ming Campbell who, when leader, led from the front and spoke in conference debate, just swinging the vote in Ming’s case? Or does he avoid the high stakes gamble of clearly backing one side in a controversial vote in his first conference as leader and instead play down his attachment to one outcome?

My hunch is that he will come out strongly for the multilateralist option, though in itself that is no guarantee of victory as many of the party’s usual strong voices in favour of multilateralism are also in some ways now voices from the past – Ming in particular. That is dangerous of the multilateralist case, as it is at its strongest when it is forward looking to decades of uncertainty, not backwards looking to the Cold War simplicity.

The other danger is that in the past there has been a ‘yes to multilateralism but no to the particular expensive option the government is proposing’ middle ground. That is becoming harder to sustain, although not impossible and something that will need clearly setting out.

But so far Farron has been adept at working the party to win it over – and the idea of making progress by negotiating with other countries is something that naturally fits the Liberal Democrat outlook on most internationalist issues. So the most likely outcome? Farron nails his colours to the mast, and then wins.

Here’s George Cunningham putting the case for an amendment that’s likely to be the key vote:

Naturally I respect the views of the “Scrapping Trident” lobby within the party. Theirs is a noble cause. But it should be remembered that the party already threw out the idea of scrapping Trident at party conference just two years ago by coming to a compromise that we would make substantial savings by reducing the number of Successor submarines from four to three.

We should try to refrain from the old referendum trick of keeping asking the same question until we get the answer we want and accept a decision that the party had only recently made…

it is entirely legitimate to revisit our 2013 “Defending the Future” party policy paper in its entirety and without political prejudice to assess the threats and how we can work with our allies to give adequate security guarantees to our citizens. The work would be timely, given that a new Strategic Defence and Security Review is expected shortly from the government

I support the amendment put forward by Defence Spokesperson Baroness Judith Jolly which in effect sends the whole issue back to a new Defence Policy Working Group. It is right that the whole issue of our country security and defence is debated by the party on the basis of a proper comprehensive assessment.

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