The election to choose a new leader of the Liberal Democrats sprang into life as Norman Lamb was accused of playing dirty by highlighting the religious views of the front-runner Tim Farron.
When the two candidates were questioned by a BBC studio audience, Mr Lamb highlighted a dividing line between them on assisted dying – whether the terminally ill should be allowed to end their life.
Mr Lamb, the former Health Minister, told the Victoria Derbyshire programme: "We agree on an awful lot. There are things we disagree on. Assisted dying is one where Tim, because of his faith and I totally respect that, takes a position.
"I fundamentally believe that it's a liberal issue that if you, in a position of terminal illness, want to make a decision to end your life it should be you, not the state, that decides. I think that is a fundamental point about the rights of the individual against the state."
Mr Lamb described himself as an “agnostic” who “did not have any faith.” Mr Farron hit back sharply, insisting his position on assisted dying was "more to do with the evidence" than his Christian beliefs.Later one ally of Mr Farron accused Mr Lamb of being “desperate”, while another said he was “playing his only, last card – Tim’s religious views.”
The issue is sensitive because Mr Lamb suspended two campaign workers at the weekend amid claims of a breach of the Data Protection Act. There were allegations that pollsters rang party members and discussed Mr Farron’s views on abortion and gay marriage. In the past, he has supported reducing the time limit for a termination and he abstained on equal marriage in the last parliament.
Mr Farron insisted that it was not incompatible for a Christian to lead a liberal party. He said he backed the current abortion law but added: "We need to constantly look at the science and medical advice….What is acceptable and what is possible at one time can change five or 10 years on.”
Mr Farron added: "I am not saying it [abortion] should be illegal. I am saying it is always a tragedy... when anyone is in a situation where they feel they need one." He went on "The point that is being made here and what tends to be landed by those folks who Norman has now expelled from his team was 'is it compatible for anybody to lead a liberal party and be a Christian?’.”
He has an accepted an apology from Mr Lamb. But Greg Mullholland, an MP and Mr Farron’s campaign manager, tweeted at the weekend: “I want a Lib Dem party that truly believes in tolerance, will engage with all communities and rejects conformity. One leadership candidate does.”
Ballot papers will be sent on Wednesday to the Lib Dems’ 61,456 members, whose ranks have grown by 15,000 since the party’s rout at last month’s election. The winner will be announced on July 16.
Mr Lamb, a close ally of Mr Clegg, said coalition had "crushed" the Lib Dems, but insisted the party had was right to join the Conservatives in coalition in 2010. "I think we were probably novices against a very ruthless and effective Tory machine….I think we made some stupid mistakes. The whole [university tuition fees] pledge thing was a disaster."
Mr Farron, the party’s former president, said: "The tuition fees debacle, which happened four and a half years ago, I think that was a killer for us because it was never about fees." He said it was about a broken promise and trust.Reuse content