It wasn’t Tim Farron’s faith – the Lib Dems’ results were what did for him | Polly Toynbee

Calling for a second referendum on Brexit was a fatal strategic error. And Labour’s fudge on the issue proved surprisingly effective

Can you forgive them? The Liberal Democrats’ election results suggests many voters can’t. Memories are short – just not that short. It’s only two years since they colluded in a government of savage austerity and state-shrinking, still progressing.

As Tim Farron steps down as leader, he claims attacks on his evangelical Christianity made his position impossible, torn between “remaining faithful to Christ” and politics. Well, maybe. Had he emerged as the great leader of the 48%, God would probably not have got in his way.

This election should have been the moment for this most sincerely, emotionally pro-European party. Labour was fudging its Brexit position, leaving an open goal for Lib Dems in many seats. But the Keir Starmer fudge was surprisingly effective. So Brexit meant Brexit in the north, while stressing close single marketism in the south, cities and university towns.

Farron complains bitterly that persistent questioning on abortion and gay rights (on both of which he had voted illiberally in the past) means “we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, free society”. But evangelical intolerance is not itself tolerant: with the Bible as a literal guide, there is precious little tolerance. No wonder the poor man felt split between two incompatibles, liberalism and evangelicalism, and racked with guilt at betraying his beliefs either way. But that’s his personal agony, not society’s.

There is room for all religious beliefs in politics. The Commons contains a highly disproportionate number of believers, compared with the secular nation they represent. We are the only democracy that is part theocracy, where 26 bishops sit as law-makers, with wildly unrepresentative numbers of other faiths in the Lords who all oppose progressive gay rights, abortion and right-to-die issues.

What we know about Tim Farron’s resignation – video report

The liberal tradition is a vital strand, upholding human rights and personal liberties: the clue is in the name. Farron’s particular faith is plentifully represented in politics, but it sits badly with leadership of liberalism.

Naturally, casting his resignation as martyrdom at the hands of intolerant militant atheists has delighted the evangelical lobby. Christian Concern, which runs the Christian Legal Centre, brings a succession of court cases defending nurses wearing crucifixes, anti-gay cake-bakers and B&B owners. They see Christians thrown to the lions everywhere, heroes beset by Christianophobia.

“We have seen at first hand the pressure Christians have been under to conform to the new morality of sexual liberation and radical secularism … During the election he had to choose whether to surrender his conscience and forfeit his soul to the intolerant marauding elite,” the group says.

His resignation, alongside “the vilification of the DUP”, shows that “Christians are simply not tolerated by the illiberal elite in positions of influence”. There is a lot more of this in its press release today. But turn to its website and its own intolerance of Islam is worth noting.

Farron was unknown when he was appointed leader, blessedly uncontaminated by any role inside the Conservative coalition. He was a clean skin, a fresh face: earnest, likable, positioning himself left of Labour. It was his party’s misfortune that after he was selected Labour chose Corbyn, and there was no breathing space on the left. Had it chosen leader later, Norman Lamb would have been their contrasting choice.

What people first heard about Farron was that persistent questioning of his beliefs. Equivocation did for him, though his previous votes would have dogged him anyway, anathema to most would-be Lib Dem voters. No wonder Lord Paddick led the charge to remove him.

That is the traditional fate of failed party leaders, not a special lion-throwing for a Christian. To call raising their seats from eight to 12 “a 50% increase” is abuse of statistics. I doubt his faith was why the Lib Dems made little headway.

Farron’s great strategic blunder was to call for a second referendum. Reasonable enough to give us a vote, when we have no idea what kind of Brexit will be offered. But all most voters heard was an attempt to rerun what was already decided. Even remainers thought it sounded undemocratic and illiberal.

Better by far to have stuck to a demand for staying in the single market and the customs union, putting the economy ahead of migration – that would have been stronger than Labour’s line. Besides, surely we know by now that referendums are the work of the devil.

Whichever way they turn for their next leader, the Lib Dems are in a bind. Vince Cable is the obvious best-known greybeard. But none of those who took the Cameron shilling can plausibly oppose the continued shredding of public services and benefits: that includes Jo Swinson. Yet choosing another unknown as leader of a tiny party creates an uphill struggle for attention.

The Lib Dems’ tragedy is that they had one chance – just one – to change the face of British politics for ever. Their one demand from Cameron should have been proportional representation passed as law – not a useless referendum on a weak alternative, sabotaged by Cameron’s party. How utterly transformed Britain would be by now. Can you forgive them?


Polly Toynbee

The GuardianTramp

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