Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has warned that Jeremy Corbyn's election has left Britain without a "strong, electable, credible opposition" to the Conservatives. He vowed to seize the "opportunities" created by Corbyn's landslide victory in Labour's leadership contest, saying: "I'm going to grab 'em."
In his first interview since Corbyn's win on Saturday, Farron also declared that the Lib Dems could soon be the only political party arguing for Britain staying in the European Union. But he said he wasn't expecting any defections from Labour or a full-blown 1980s-style split any time soon.
"Obviously the developments worry me because I think it weakens the opposition to the Conservatives and we need to have a stronger opposition," he told BuzzFeed News.
"Healthy democracy needs a good, strong, electable, credible opposition with a separate and distinct vision that can buy in from a very large section of the population – and it would appear that Labour isn't that now. I want us to be that.
"I think there is clearly a very big space in British politics for a party that is progressive, that is moderate, that is responsible, that is electable, and that is liberal – and that's us. So, yeah, I'm aware of the opportunities we now have and I'm going to grab 'em."
Corbynmania has seen tens of thousands of people flock to the Labour party this summer – with more than 30,000 signing up since Corbyn's election last Saturday. Many are young people inspired by the Islington North MP's anti-austerity message and his promise to do politics differently.
But the Lib Dems have also seen a surge in membership, albeit on a much smaller scale, since they were crushed in May's general election and booted out of coalition. The party has attracted 19,000 new members and next week's party conference in Bournemouth is expected to be far busier than last year's.
The party was left with just eight MPs in parliament after five years in coalition with the Conservatives. But the slogan "Lib Dem Fightback" will be splashed around the conference venue as the party seeks to win over new voters in the centre ground. Britain's lack of affordable housing will dominate proceedings next week, with the party attacking the government over a "lack of courage" in building new homes.
Farron cast doubt on the motives of all Labour's new members. "The Corbyn situation is a phenomenon and it's not something people should dismiss out of hand," he said. "But I think the Labour party's big increase in membership over the last few months comes from various places.
"I bumped into people on the refugee march who are basically Socialist Workers, who are no friends of the Labour party, and we all know Tory party members who joined the party to vote for Corbyn.
"Our membership increase – which has been also very significant and in many ways all the more surprising given what happened on 7 May – what's wonderful about it is these are the most enthusiastic people you can imagine. They don't think everything we did in government was right but that we did right by the country in going into government."
Farron said he didn't know Corbyn well but remembers voting with him against the former Labour government when the Lib Dems were in opposition. "I occasionally expressed the briefest words of sympathy to him when he was being shouted at by his whips," he said.
One of these whips, back in 2004-05, was Tom Watson – now deputy leader of Labour. "I certainly have an impression of Tom Watson as a whip, stood on the opposition lobby door, menacing any Labour rebel who might think to go through it," Farron said.
"I can't in all honesty say I remember him trying to intimidate Jeremy Corbyn to not go through our lobby but I'm sure it happened."
Farron, who was elected Lib Dem leader in July, said he had already noticed a change in Corbyn's appearance after just a few days in office. "I had a quick word with him to congratulate him and I've noticed how his suits have got darker and more fashionable," he said. "Mind you, I got told to sort myself out, but I wasn't wearing 30-year-old geography teacher's jackets."
He insisted it was "far too soon" to talk about Labour splitting into two separate parties. Back in the early 1980s, four moderate MPs who were fed up with left-winger Michael Foot's leadership formed the Social Democratic Party – which ultimately led to the creation of the Liberal Democrats.
He also dismissed questions about potential defections from Labour. "That's not something I'm wanting to talk about particularly, that's an internal matter for them," he said.
But Farron warned that the Tory government "desperately needs to be held to account" over changes to benefits, free school meals, human rights, and environmental issues. He accused David Cameron of "cocking up" the refugee crisis and putting the UK's relations with its European neighbours at risk so that "our chances of leaving are that much greater".
Pointing to Corbyn's wavering position on Europe ahead of an in-out referendum on Britain's membership, he warned: "We may find ourselves in a situation where we're the only party that in a coherent way argues for Britain's interests remaining in the European Union.
"It would be the most idiotic act of harakiri if we were to leave the EU and yet you've got the leaders of the two largest parties in the country now toying with it. Much has been said about patriotism over the last 24 hours – I don't really care whether anyone sings the national anthem or not but I do care whether they crash our future in Europe."
Farron said he often talked to his predecessor Nick Clegg and it was "utterly understandable" why he didn't want an official party role. "It's perfectly normal that the immediate past leader doesn't go on and serve in a frontbench capacity," he said. "Having said that, I was with him last night, I see him regularly, and he's been a great source of advice."
Farron also cleared up some confusion on Twitter over a series of photographs that recently surfaced of him holding milk. After BuzzFeed News showed him one such picture, he became deadly serious as he explained they were taken around 2009 when he was the party's environment spokesperson.
"It's basically me looking glum with a whole load of bottles of milk," he said. "These are a load of councillors and parliamentary candidates having their photograph taken with me looking disappointed about the milk price frankly. This is a really serious issue. It's disappointing that people think it's funny, as the problem's not gone away.
"I do look a bit ridiculous but the problem is in Britain that 90% of people have never met a dairy farmer. We will walk down one aisle in Waitrose and feel self-righteous as we buy Fairtrade coffee from Colombia but in the next aisle we'll buy milk from Cumbria ripped out of the hands of a farmer who's been exploited far worse than you can imagine."