No certainty Lib Dems will survive warns new leader Tim Farron
New Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has warned there is no certainty that the party will survive, in the wake of its general election hammering.
Mr Farron, who was elected last night to succeed Nick Clegg with 56% of the membership vote, said it could take a generation for them to recover their position in the last parliament.
However, he insisted there was still a place in British politics for a "liberal third force" and that it was possible they could bounce back within a couple of years.
Asked on Sky News how long it would take to get back to the position where they had 50-plus MPs, he said: "It is not inevitable that we survive at all, neither is it inevitable that it has to take forever."
With the party down to a rump of just eight MPs, Mr Farron compared the position he inherited with the situation the Liberals faced in the 1970s when Jeremy Thorpe was forced to resign amid allegations he plotted to murder a former male lover.
"David Steel took over the leadership of the Liberal Party at the height of the Thorpe scandal," Mr Farron said.
"That was a pretty terrible time for the party and it took him five or six years to go from that unbelievable low point to the point where we got 26% of the vote.
"We have seen comebacks in our party in the past on many occasions. It might take a generation, it also might take a year or two."
He added: "There is space for an absolutely tough, outsider, anti-establishment, liberal third force in British politics. Surely only the Liberal Democrats can fill it and I am determined that we will."
In an indication of the direction in which he may lead the party, Mr Farron told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that George Osborne's Budget was "morally wrong" and that the Trident nuclear deterrent was "a Cold War relic".
He said that he would eliminate the state deficit by boosting growth and ensuring workers were earning more, and said he would take advantage of historically low interest rates to borrow for "serious capital investment" in projects such as the mooted HS3 and HS4 high-speed rail links in the North of England and Midlands, universal high-speed broadband and 30 energy-generating tidal lagoons around the UK.
Mr Farron dismissed the Chancellor's Budget promise of a £7.20-an-hour National Living Wage - rising to £9 by 2020 - saying: "Just because you call something a living wage, doesn't mean it is one. I could call myself Pele, it doesn't mean I'm any good at football."
Asked whether he would take the Lib Dems to the left of politics, Mr Farron told Today: "I think I'm taking us hopefully in a liberal and optimistic direction."
He acknowledged that the results of the May election were "devastating" for the party, but insisted: " We have in this country a massive space for a liberal vision.
"There is no point in us navel-contemplating and feeling sorry for ourselves. There is only one way out of this, and that is to fight back and call on those millions of people in Britain who are liberals in their heart and say 'You need to be a Liberal Democrat. This is the moment to come to the aid of the party'."
He warned: "Liberalism is under threat, but it is absolutely essential."
Setting out his political philosophy, Mr Farron said: "I certainly think that government should be ambitious, I don't think it should interfere and meddle. I believe in people being protected in terms of civil liberties and personal freedoms, but I also believe that government should take the lead in making sure we have a fairer country."
Mr Farron said he believed the Government should be "absolutely fiscally responsible on revenue and we should clear this deficit".
But asked if he wanted to cut the welfare bill, he replied: "I do, but only as a result of people earning more money and the economy growing."
Confirming that he would not cut tax credits for families with more than two children in the way proposed by Mr Osborne, Mr Farron told Today: "What happened in the Budget last week was that young families on lower incomes who are hard-working and in work will lose money.
"The people who are rich - the 6% richest in this country - will benefit from inheritance tax cuts.
"That is not sound economics, that is not about making tough decisions, that is about redistributing the damage caused by the financial crash towards the poor and away from the rich and that is just morally wrong."
On Trident, he said: "I think we should have a nuclear deterrent, I don't think we should be blowing £100 million on a Cold War relic. I think we should be investing it wisely in more troops."
Mr Farron brushed off criticisms of him by ex-leader Lord Ashdown, who suggested during the leadership contest that judgment was "not his strong suit", and former business secretary Vince Cable, who said he was not a "credible leader".
While "Paddy and Vince are right about most things", they were "obviously" not right about him, he said.
He hailed Mr Clegg as "a mate of mine and a good friend as well", despite the fact that the former leader never appointed Mr Farron to a ministerial post during his time as deputy prime minister.
Mr Farron played down the influence which his Christian faith would have on his decisions as party leader.
"As a leader, you have to make decisions based on the evidence in front of you," he said.
Asked if he would ask God for advice, he replied: "Yes, but I don't ask for him to present the answer to me. You seek wisdom and wisdom is the ability to make the best choices based on the evidence in front of you."
Mr Farron added: "In the end, everybody, whether you have a religious faith or not, comes to a decision on the basis of value judgments. It is a peculiar thing to assume that only people who have a religious standpoint have valued judgments - we all do. The point about being a liberal is you defend the right of everybody to have those separate beliefs or absence of them."