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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.