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David Cameron Knows He’s Taking A Risk With His Party Over Same-Sex Marriage. But Has He Grasped How Big It Is?

Last Updated: Friday, December 14th, 2012

Introducing same-sex marriage wasn’t in the Conservative manifesto.

(For the record, it’s worth adding that it wasn’t in the Liberal Democrat manifesto either.)

Furthermore, it wasn’t in the Coalition Agreement.

And it wasn’t in the list of proposals contained in the last Queen’s Speech.

Nor has it been subject to a Green Paper or White Paper – which, given the knotty difficulties of the proposal for the faith communities, one might reasonably have expected it to be.  (A point that has been proved by the disquiet in the Church of England over the Government’s proposal, as part of the plan, explicitly to bar it from conducting same-sex marriages.)

Why, then, is David Cameron so determined to press ahead with the measure, given the opposition to it among his own MPs?

Arguably, that opposition would represent a majority of them were it not for his own support.  Downing Street is claiming that they will divide 60-40 in favour of the bill, and it is of course possible that the break for it will be more favourable.  But although the bill will be subject to a free vote, and Tory MPs are more independent-minded than they were, there can be little doubt that ambitious ones will want to vote in the same lobby as their leader.

At any rate, the answers to my question are problematic.

Some in Number 10 see the plan as a winner among younger voters, who are generally for the proposal, just as older ones are against.

But polling evidence suggests that this gain will be longer-term and impressionistic rather than short-term and immediate, since few voters will actually switch their vote on the issue at the next election either way.

Others claim that driving same-sex marriage through Parliament will help cement Cameron’s claim to be a strong leader.

It is probably true that he will get credit for the measure, even if it is carried by the votes of the Opposition parties.  But it is surely hard to draw a precise link between a same-sex marriage bill and improved poll ratings.

I have written on ConservativeHome that backing for the plan is simply seen as the decent thing to do by Team Cameron, which is urban and liberal on social matters.

Indeed, that Downing Street will be more familiar with gay people of a similar social background than with, say, some ethnic minority groups must partly explain the intensity of its interest in the issue.

But there is perhaps one other allied factor that hasn’t been identified by the commentators – namely, the place of same-sex marriage in Cameron’s modernisation project.

After all, the days of “Vote blue, go green” or “hug a hoodie” (as an early Cameron speech on law and order was misleadingly reported) are long gone.  George Osborne sees green politics as a luxury that Britain can’t afford.

The Prime Minister is going for shale gas and backing a benefits freeze.  The pledge to increase the aid budget in real terms, of course, remains and is being honoured.

But the idealism of the early Cameron days is rather threadbare.  And it is far from certain that he will be Prime Minister after 2015.  In such conditions, inhabitants of Downing Street begin to ask themselves: what will be my legacy?  What will people remember about me – and how will they see the connection between my acts and my character, my beliefs, my values?

I suspect that in some corner of his mind Cameron sees same-sex marriage as a legacy issue, just as much of his party sees it as profoundly unconservative.

The clash between these two visions of what conservatism is thus has a real emotional depth and power to it.  And we have yet to see the details of a bill.  The Prime Minister’s relationship with his own MPs is a troubled one – as the context of Coalition and those differences over the EU remind us.  If Cameron really does see same-sex marriage as a “Clause 4 Moment”, he should bear in mind that Tony Blair’s position in his own party, when he took it on over one of its most precious totems, was far stronger then than his own is today.

By Paul Goodman

 

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE WEEK ON CONSERVATIVEHOME

Nick Pickles:  A total re-write of the Communications Data Bill is all that Parliament can contemplate
“As the dust settles on two severely critical reports on the draft Communications Data Bill, two things are clear – the internet is an essential part of Britain’s social and economic future, and the Home Office’s handling of the bill has been deeply damaging.
Rushed tweaking and more sham consultations are not the way forward. If legislation is needed it must be proportionate, properly evidence based and technically certain, particularly on the impact upon British businesses. The consideration of how logging every website visit, email and social media message impinges upon privacy must be far more thorough, with the public fully consulted”. Read more: http://is.gd/MW1hUD

Lord Bates: Time to give the licence fee payer a say at “their BBC”
“The duty of the public service broadcaster is to offer distinctive programming which is in the public interest but may not be able to be justified entirely commercially. Yet its top viewed programmes on BBC 1 for the last week were: Strictly Come Dancing (twice), Eastenders (three times)….The time may well have come for the gush of fresh air of democracy to clear through the stale atmosphere of Broadcasting House. A time to prove that the BBC really does serve the license payer and not just itself. It is time for the 24.75 million of us who pay for the BBC to be given a vote, and not just for who goes through to the next round of Strictly Come Dancing. Read more: http://is.gd/WcJD47

Paul Goodman: Beneath Cameron’s drive for same-sex marriage lies disdain for his own MPs
“Stonewall’s Ben Summerskill says that gay people vote “increasingly in line with the rest of the population”.  But a mere 16 per cent of ethnic minority voters backed the Tories in 2010.  Seen in this light, isn’t Downing Street’s stress on same-sex marriage a bit disproportionate?  Why has the Chancellor, so pointed on the subject of gay rights, nothing to say about his party’s difficulty with ethnic minority voters? I wonder if Team Cameron is simply more familiar with gay people (if drawn from a similar social background, anyway) than with ethnic minorities.  Socially and culturally, it varies little – in class and age terms, at any rate.  There is no senior, pre-2001 MP to advise – to remind the Heir to Portillo that disdain for one’s colleagues is scarcely less corrosive than contempt.” Read more: http://is.gd/54Y10i

Peter Hoskin: David Cameron shouldn’t dismiss drugs decriminalisation out of hand
“There are now proportionately more users of heroin and cocaine, and they pay considerably less for them than they would have done ten years ago. This implies that supply is easily keeping up with demand. The policy may be working in the case of cannabis, but as Philip Johnston argues in today’s Daily Telegraph, that is the drug which most people are in favour of legalising. Meanwhile, harder, scarier drugs are hanging on and on. And that, in turn, is one reason why the Prime Minister shouldn’t dismiss the decriminalisation of — or at least relaxation of the laws around — cannabis out of hand. Until some of that “police activity” is focused elsewhere, we’ll always have a drugs policy that is skewed and insufficient.” Read more: http://is.gd/oY6TMh

The Deep End: The most unaffordable public sector pension scheme of them all
“Mr Norton, though, foresees a solution. Accumulation based pensions would produce big savings several decades hence, therefore “what is needed is a way to get our hands on all that lovely future money so that we can spend it now.”…But wouldn’t this add to the liabilities on the nation’s already over-burdened balance sheet? No, because the nation is already liable for the pensions it has promised to its working-age citizens when they retire. This is not a liability that formally appears on the national accounts, but it is there nonetheless. Norton’s proposal is essentially a means of waking up to this reality – and focusing the decisions we make on our responsibilities to the future.” Read more: http://is.gd/y0QEwU

Tim Montgomerie: Boris Johnson and Michael Gove sign up to new Tory-led campaign for same-sex marriage
“As reported widely in today’s written and broadcast media a new Tory-led group has been formed to support equal marriage. You can read more about ‘Freedom to Marry’ on its website. I should declare an interest. Some months ago I made a conservative case for gay marriage on this website and I’ve joined the group as one of its supporters. The other initial supporters are listed below…As media outlets have noted the support of evangelical Christians Alistair Burt and Desmond Swayne as well as the Catholic Cabinet minister Patrick McLoughlin is an indication of the group’s broad base. More high-profile supporters will be announced in the coming days and weeks.” Read more: http://is.gd/VaRMXt

Conservative Intelligence: Lord Lamont’s reflections on the Autumn Statement
“Finally, on the politics, Lord Lamont was upbeat. The Tories should adopt the message that Bill Clinton issued at the summer’s Democratic convention. The Republican argument was that they had left the biggest economic mess in a hundred years, Clinton joked, and that since the Democrats hadn’t cleared up all of it so far the Republicans should be reelected. Unlike in America where George W Bush’s team were off the scene, Britain’s Labour Party would be led by people whose fingerprints were all over ‘the mess’, making the Clinton attack even easier to press home. Osborne and Cameron should tell the country, Lamont concluded, that a lot had been done but there was a lot was still to do.” Read more: http://is.gd/3MlUMn

By Paul Goodman

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