Abortion row hits pro-EU LibDems UK election campaign

Liberal Democratic leader Tim Farron speaks during the launching of his party's 2017 general election manifesto. London, 17 May. [Andy Rain/EPA]

The most staunchly pro-EU party in the upcoming British election has been hit by a row over its leader’s Christian beliefs, especially on abortion, undermining its call for a second Brexit referendum.

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has been haunted by a interview he gave ten years ago, describing abortion as ‘wrong’, hitting his attempts to woo the 48% of British voters who opted to remain in the EU.

The party – which was a coalition partner in government from 2010-2015 – had hoped to capitalise on being the most Europhile of the mainstream parties, and win back some of the 40 plus seats it lost in its 2015 general election drubbing.

However, its hoped-for appeal to the anti-Brexit voter has been hit by a focus on Farron’s private, Christian views.

Gay sex

Farron, who took over from former leader Nick Clegg after the 2015 election reduced the party to just eight MPs, spent much of April and the early stages of the campaign dogged by questions on whether he thought gay sex was a “sin”.

After refusing repeatedly to clarify in TV interviews his Christian perspective on homosexual relations, merely saying “we are all sinners”, before finally clarifying – in a House of Commons debate – that “No, I do not [think it is a sin]”.

Now the focus has turned to abortion – unlike in the US, not traditionally an election topic in the UK, where it has been legalised since the 1960s, and MPs can vote according to personal beliefs on the issue, rather than party lines.

However, with the LibDem supporters traditionally being middle-class social liberals, some have been put off by their leader’s brand of evangelical Christianity.

Farron – and his supporters within the party – have constantly pointed out that he voted in favour of the same-sex marriage act in 2013.

However, with the LibDems squeezed for airtime between the ruling Conservative and opposition Labour, every reference to the leader’s faith eats up valuable slots that could be spend discussing Brexit, devolution and the environment – key policy areas for the party.

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In an interview in 2007 – after becoming an MP but long before becoming party leader – Farron had told the Salvation Army magazine: “Take the issue of abortion. Personally I wish I could argue it away. Abortion is wrong.”

That caused another flourish of negative headlines for the MP – who represents Westmorland and Lonsdale in north west England – with his party rushing to stress it would not change the UK law on the issue.

Senior party figure and ex-MP Ed Davey told the Daily Telegraph: “Tim has made very clear he has changed his mind.

“He’s made it clear that he is pro-choice and the Liberal Democrats believe that women should have the right to choose.”

Speaking on Sky News on Sunday (21 May),  Farron, was asked twice whether he personally thought abortion was ‘wrong’.

He replied: “Well, I believe women should have access under law which is safe and legal, and I think that’s the critical issue – do you believe people should be able to make that choice under law, and do you believe the law as it stands is right and the science that dictates, or rather underlines, that law is right.”

Faith under fire?

He then hit out, saying: “I think the odd kind of focus upon my faith over the last few weeks is one that I think millions of people will just think is very peculiar.

“I’m one of millions of people in this country who has a faith – some Christian, some not Christian – and the majority probably with no faith whatsoever.”

Currently, abortions are legal up to 24 weeks in Britain. However, an opinion poll this week for the pro-life group Where Do They Stand? found that nearly two-thirds of the 2,000 people questioned supported a reduction in that time limit to 20 weeks.

Some 20% thought it should be cut to 12 weeks, i.e. three months.

This morning, former leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was forced to defend Farron, telling his critics to “lay off” the party leader, and that the issue was “just his faith”.

Farron became a born-again Christian at the age of 18, calling it “the most massive choice I have ever made”.

The Tories are believed to be privately targeting his seat, which was Conservative-held for 95 years before Farron won it in 2005, by just 276 votes.

His current majority is 8,949.

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