Will Cameron go to war with Conservative Christians?

The repeal of Sunday trading laws and the introduction of gay marriage could trigger a backlash.

When George Osborne announced the suspension of Sunday trading laws for the Olympics, the government assured the public and retailers that it was a temporary measure. Yet, as was inevitable, ministers, including Osborne and Eric Pickles, are now pushing for them to be permanently abandoned. Downing Street has insisted that they won't be (describing the suspension as "a specific thing for the Olympics"), without quite ruling out the move altogether.

Cameron is right to tread carefully. It was over this issue that Margaret Thatcher suffered her first and only Commons defeat when 72 Conservative MPs voted against the complete repeal of the laws in 1986. The introduction of an equivalent bill today would likely spark a similar rebellion. Tory MP Mark Pritchard, for instance, has said:

I think all of us deserve rest and that includes shop workers.

As somebody who has worked in a shop on a Sunday, and not every Conservative MP has done that, I know that there is a lot of pressure on workers to turn up, there’s a question of whether people are overlooked for promotion.

The abandonment of Sunday trading laws would hurt small retailers the most and remove an important constraint on market rule. Unsurprisingly, then, the public are opposed to the measure by 52% to 36%. For obvious reasons, the abolition of Sunday trading laws would also antagonise churchgoing voters. Cameron's decision to press ahead with plans to introduce gay marriage has already alienated conservative Christians and is currently the top reason for Tory members resigning from the party. The Daily Mail's Andrew Pierce reported that thousands "ripped up their membership cards and refused to renew their subscriptions." He added:

The alarm bells sounded in the Tory HQ, which in January launched a national appeal to try to persuade waverers to return to the fold. The appeal was a dismal failure.

ConservativeHome's Paul Goodman has previously dubbed the coalition "the most anti-Christian Government in British history" Whether this is true or not (and the answer likely depends on which kind of Christian you are referring to), is less important than the fact that some Christians are now asking this question. Were Cameron making progress among those groups - black and ethnic-minority voters, public-sector workers, Scottish voters - that refused to support him in 2010, he could afford to risk alienating thousands of Conservative christians. But he is not. In today's Mail, George Pitcher, Rowan Williams's former public affairs secretary, writes of "Cameron's contempt for religion in general and the Church of England in particular." If this view gains currency on the right, the Prime Minister will be in trouble.

David Cameron reads during the service of thanksgiving to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.