Is the new Lib Dem leader underestimating the task ahead of him?

Continuity Clegg: Farron starts the great Corbyn-inspired U-turn

Continuity Clegg: Farron starts the great Corbyn-inspired U-turn

From the moment those polls came out showing Jeremy Corbyn was going to win the Labour leadership, it was obvious Tim Farron was going to have to change course.

All the left-wing parties have faced the same problem. In their own ways, they've all defined their positions by Labour's rejection of the left. Now that the party was hurtling back to it, they all had to recalibrate.

The Greens held out an olive branch. The SNP panicked and insisted the election of a man they swore could not be elected precipitated another referendum. For the Lib Dems, the response was more obvious. They needed to stick to the centre and try to tempt moderate mainstream Labour supporters – or moderate mainstream anti-Tory voters – to come join them. The only problem was Farron had based his pitch for the leadership on the idea he would shift the party left.

And so today the great Lib Dem U-turn begins. In briefings ahead of Farron's keynote conference speech, the Lib Dems stress that he still considers himself centre-left. There's no reason to doubt him. But the content of the speech will be resolutely centrist – even centre-right. He'll praise the coalition and refuse to talk about what it did wrong. He'll stress the vital importance of reducing the deficit at all costs and he'll celebrate entrepreneurs with the same language usually reserved for Beveridge.

It's pretty weird stuff actually. "We remain committed to the abolition of the structural deficit by 2017/18," Farron will say at one point. "It's tough and I tell you frankly that it means that we won't be able to do all the things we might like to do in the short term." It might as well have come from a Clegg speech to conference last year. Has anyone told the Lib Dems they're not in power anymore?

Tim Farron: Looking left, but turning right?

A bizarre passage about entrepreneurs has all the hollow ring of the Labour leadership's early stages, in which the word 'aspiration' was used to highlight a shift to the right. But as facile and simplistic as that was, at least it attempted to reach out to a part of the electorate. Farron instead specifies an imagined group of voters and tells them they are liberals already, whether they know it or not. It’s part of this irritating Lib Dem trend of blaming the public for not recognising they are worthy of their support.

"These are our people," he will say, "enterprising people, liberal people. People who believe that no-one owes them a living, but nor should government get in the way of them making a living for themselves – just like liberals… Whether they know it or not enterprising people – entrepreneurs – are liberals. And, just as being a liberal is not easy, it’s not easy being an entrepreneur."

Farron's defence of the Lib Dem record in government – ending child detention, free school meals, taking the low paid out of tax – is as hollow as the list which failed to raise much applause when Clegg issued it during his speech on Monday. There is a notable lack of appreciation from Lib Dem members themselves for these supposed achievements, let alone the wider public. And yet they keep on celebrating them.

"You know, there are those that would like me to take this opportunity to distance myself from the past five years," Farron will say, "to say it was all some dreadful mistake, to say: 'I disagree with Nick.' But I don't and I won't… I am proud of what we did in government and I am determined that we will return to government. Did we make mistakes in government? Sure, but show me a government that didn't."

Unfortunately, the Lib Dems won't say what these mythical mistakes were. Clegg admitted phrasing his centrist message badly at the election. It appears Farron agrees with that, but that's where the soul-searching stops. One can only conclude that Farron, Clegg and the others have radically underestimated the extent of the public's irritation with them.

Farron's new continuity-Clegg strategy deals with the problem of Corbyn and positions him roughly where he needs to be to pick up moderate centrist voters alienated from Labour. But without showing far more contrition and self-analysis about what wrong in government, it won't convince people that the Lib Dems deserved to be listened to again.

Let's hope today's speech contains far more soul-searching than the briefings released overnight. Because as things stand, it appears Farron is radically underestimating the task in front of him.