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Could Tim Farron Have Answered 'That' Question About Gay Rights Any Better?

21/07/2015 15:38 BST | Updated 21/07/2016 10:59 BST

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In short, yes he could and the best example I have seen of what such an answer might have looked like actually came from his recent rival for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats, Norman Lamb. During the leadership campaign, in an interview with pressure group Liberal Reform, Lamb said this:

"I totally accept that in applying your values you sometimes get conflicts between those values and principles."

I'll come back to that in a moment, but first let's revisit that question that caused Tim so much trouble in the first place.

Last Friday, on Channel 4 news, he was asked three times whether he - personally - considered gay sex to be a sin. He consistently reaffirmed his commitment to gay rights and equal marriage, but that didn't stop his failure to answer the question becoming news.

The reason it was an issue in the first place was that many Lib Dems members had expressed concerns during the campaign about his religious beliefs and their compatibility with the party's long-standing commitment to upholding gay rights.

Hence why it was so hard for him to answer. Say yes and all anyone would have been talking about is that he thinks gay people are sinners. Say no and he would have granted the premise of the question that you can't be a committed Christian and a staunch advocate of gay rights.

So, Tim simply jumped straight to the follow-up question: how will your personal views as a Christian affect the positions you take on gay rights as leader of the Liberal Democrats? To which, he stated as clearly as he could: not at all. However, his refusal to answer the original question simply raised another - would his position on gay rights be in accordance with his personal views or in spite of them?

Thus far, Tim's strategy for dispelling the doubts of his critics has been to emphasise the sincerity of his commitment to LGBT rights. But sincerity isn't the problem.

I firmly believe he is sincere when he says that all citizens should have "every right to love who you love, marry who you wish". I believe he is equally sincere when he says that he is committed to protecting the rights of minorities, which includes "protecting people's right to conscience".

The problem is that there is no amount of sincerity he can express that tells me what he would do if and when those two principles came into conflict with each other, as they did for Tony Blair when he legalised gay adoption in 2007. Blair was faced with the unenviable choice of allowing Catholic adoption agencies to discriminate against gay couples on the grounds of their 'right to conscience', or shut them down for refusing to comply with the law. He chose the latter.

And this is where Norman Lamb's comment to Liberal Reform last month becomes so instructive. He was describing his experience as a health minister in the coalition and the clash he faced between his commitment to guaranteeing a national standard of care for all NHS patients, and to devolving control of public services to local communities. He chose the former.

More importantly, he explained the thought process he followed when forced to choose between two of his most cherished principles, leaving the reader with a good idea of what he would do if he ever found himself in a similar situation in the future.

In other words, leadership is not simply a matter of staying faithful to your principles, but knowing what you will do when they come into conflict with each other.

I am a big fan of Tim Farron. I have been since long before he became party president, let alone party leader. I hope he heeds the wisdom of his one-time rival and gives us the answer we really need to hear.