Tim Farron’s religion wasn’t a problem – his leadership was

Rachel Cunliffe
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Liberal Democrat Leader Tim Farron Speaks Following General Election Gains
Farron claimed it was “impossible” to be a political leader in today’s Britain while remaining a committed Christian (Source: Getty)

Has Tim Farron been forced out of politics by the intolerance of the progressive left?

The former Liberal Democrat leader, who resigned on Wednesday, appears to see it that way.

In his resignation statement he said he felt it was “impossible” to be a political leader in today’s Britain while remaining a committed Christian.

The narrative is that Farron, who has never been shy about his religious beliefs, was unfairly hounded by broadcast media, and that his departure proves that Britain’s liberals are not nearly as accepting of alternative viewpoints as they would like to think.

There is some truth to the former claim. The relentless questioning about whether or not Farron considered gay sex to be a sin was a blatant double standard. The vicar’s daughter Theresa May (who, among other things, voted against same-sex adoption and equalising the age of consent for gay men) was never asked this question.

Nor was Jeremy Corbyn probed on how he could square his liberal values with his paid appearances on the state television channel of a regime which executes gay people.

And no one had a word to say on the illiberal, anti-choice and homophobic platform of the DUP until they shot to prominence as the Conservatives’ only viable coalition partner.

So the Liberal Democrat leader may have been unfairly treated. But the fact is that Farron has managed to reconcile his personal beliefs with his political liberalism relatively well throughout his career.

His voting record isn’t spotlessly progressive, but he has consistently been in favour of protections for LGBT people. He campaigned against Section 28 (the law that made it illegal to discuss homosexuality in schools), he made a point of speaking out against the horrors facing gay men in Chechnya when no other party leader would, and he has been one of the few politicians to campaign for the rights of transgender people.

And although he abstained from the final vote on same-sex marriage, he voted in favour in the previous readings.

This shows that Farron is not incapable of being a devout Christian and a vocal liberal, at the same time. He is, however, incapable of being the leader of the Liberal Democrats.

Read more: Tim Farron quits as Liberal Democrat leader, blaming focus on his faith

The Lib Dems were handed a campaign on a plate in the election. Remember, 48 per cent of voters in the EU referendum chose Remain, many concentrated in metropolitan areas where winning seats should have been easy.

The Tories were going for a hard Brexit, and Labour, with eurosceptic Jeremy Corbyn at the helm, had spent a year failing to come up with a compelling position on the EU. True, analysis showed that by the time May called the election, around half of Remainers had reluctantly accepted the result and were content to get on with Brexit, but that still left nearly a quarter susceptible to a party whose flagship policy was staying in the EU.

And yet the Lib Dems’ vote share last week was 7.4 per cent – even lower than the wipeout of 2015.

A compelling, charismatic leader could have capitalised on the shock and disruption of the past 10 months to build a pro-EU, globalist platform to challenge the protectionism of both Labour and the Tories. Nick Clegg, who sadly lost his seat thanks to Farron’s insipid campaign, garnered millions of supporters with his post-referendum articles and interviews. Vince Cable, now back in the Commons after a two-year hiatus, is an absolute powerhouse and will hopefully use his reacquired platform to push for a more open United Kingdom.

Instead of these giants, the Lib Dems had a camera-shy overgrown schoolboy as a leader whose defining feature was his view on gay sex.

The media went after Farron’s religion, and that was wrong, but they did so because there was so little else to say about the man. According to a pollster from Britain Thinks, most people in focus groups didn’t even know who he was. Think of a Farron speech that was particularly inspiring, or a quote that made you stand up and take notice. You can’t.

Christian conservatism surrounding homosexuality didn’t have to be a dealbreaker. Barack Obama said in 2008 that he believed marriage should be between a man and a woman, and that didn’t stop millions of progressives and LGBT Americans rallying to his cause. Why? Because he gave them so much else to believe in. Farron had nothing but awkwardness and an inability to connect with the electorate.

In this context, Farron’s resignation statement on Wednesday was an attempt to dodge responsibility and play the martyr. He didn’t acknowledge his mistakes, but blamed journalists for fixating on his faith. He wasn’t forced out because of his religion – he was a weak leader who happened to be religious. He may have found it impossible to lead a “progressive, liberal party in 2017”, but that had nothing to do with his belief in the bible.

A different leader could have shown you can be a committed Christian and campaign for liberal values. Farron just didn’t have the personality necessary to lead a party in modern Britain.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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