Gay marriage could be a defining issue for Cameron

Barack Obama's support for the idea has strengthened Tory liberals' resolve to take on the reactiona

Barack Obama’s decision to support gay marriage has no doubt been timed with careful attention paid to the US electoral cycle. The American Commander-in-Chief definitely did not factor in the political travails of David Cameron on a small rain-lashed island several thousand miles east of Washington. Had he done so, he might have postponed the announcement by a day or two.

It isn’t the biggest story to come out of yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, but people who were watching carefully for prime ministerial capitulations to the Conservative right found one in the absence of proposals to give gay couples equal rights in marriage.

As I write in my column this week, this is an issue that has acquired emblematic status in the battle over what kind of a Conservative party Cameron leads. In his speech at last year’s Tory party conference, the Prime Minister made the case for gay marriage robustly:

Yes, it’s about equality, but it’s also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.

The fact that the hall applauded at this point was subsequently held up as evidence of the great strides in “modernisation” that the party had taken under Cameron’s leadership.

But it turns out that the party grass roots are less signed up to this view than Downing Street likes to think. I have heard a number of MPs complain that gay marriage was a “hot button” issue in their constituencies and that it provoked Tory voters to abstain or back Ukip in last week’s local elections. It cost the party council seats, say back benchers. Nonsense, comes the riposte from Downing Street. It’s the economy and weeks of headlines about incompetence that hit the party's poll ratings. The very last thing we should do, say Downing Street aides, is veer off into illiberal reaction.

Both are right up to a point. At a national level it is crazy to think that Cameron’s support for gay marriage makes the difference between a majority in 2015 and another hung parliament. At the same time, at local level, it is plainly a problem when activists are outraged by their leader’s opinions.

The gay marriage issue is currently out for formal consultation, so Downing Street could clearly act on it if it was felt to be important enough. The Lib Dems are ardently in favour and would quite happily probe and provoke Tory prejudice on the subject to remind voters that (as they see it) Nick Clegg leads the modern, caring, tolerant wing of the coalition. For precisely that reason, senior Lib Dems very much doubt that Cameron can change the policy. He wouldn't want to give the Lib Dems such a handy stick with which to beat the Tories. He might, however, want to postpone dealing with it to avoid looking as if he is deliberately antagonising his back bench enemies.

Obama’s move makes that approach that little bit harder. Suddenly, everyone of a socially liberal disposition in Westminster  - in all three parties – is fired up and praising the US President’s brave moral stand, pointing out how it casts gay equality as a contemporary civil rights issue and puts Mitt Romney on the wrong side of history, held back by Republican tea party fanaticism etc. That is not necessarily company Cameron wants to be keeping.

Liberal Tories, meanwhile, have been watching the party’s right wing mobilise in recent weeks and are feeling the need for a counter-attack. As I have written before, joining the coalition postponed a difficult debate about what kind of movement the Tories want to be – what is their model of 21st Century Conservatism? The leadership is not seriously in question. Cameron is personally secure for now. But the party’s soul is still up for grabs. There is a feeling that Tory internal culture wars are brewing. Gay marriage could end up being much more of an issue for Cameron than he expected when he made that speech last year.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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