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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.