Gay marriage: Cameron's battle begins

Determined to secure a legacy, the PM has picked a fight with his own voters.

The coalition's long-trailed consultation on gay marriage finally begins today. And the outcome, it appears, has been largely pre-determined. As Lynne Featherstone, the equalities minister, who is leading the consultation, tells today's Independent, "The essential question is not whether we are going to introduce same-sex civil marriage but how." Elsewhere, in an op-ed for today's Times (£), Theresa May becomes the latest senior Conservative to declare her support for the proposal, making the sound argument that marriage, a social good, should be extended to as many people as possible.

With the support of so many cabinet ministers, it's hard to see gay marriage not becoming law by 2015. For David Cameron, desperate for his government not to be defined by deficit reduction alone, this is a chance to effect lasting social change.

But he will face significant clerical and parliamentary resistance. The government has already agreed to give Conservative ministers, some of whom are prepared to resign over the issue, a free vote in the Commons. Defence minister Gerald Howarth, for instance, has already clumsily declared his opposition to gay marriage: "Some of my best friends are in civil partnerships, which is fine, but I think it would be a step too far to suggest that this is marriage".

Then there's the church. The government has already ruled out making it compulsory for religious organisations to host gay marriages but that hasn't placated the faithful. Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the leader of the Roman Catholic church in Scotland, has shamed himself by comparing same sex marriage to slavery, while Rowan Williams has argued that the law cannot be used to impose cultural change, and cannot run ahead of public opinion.

Williams is right: more of the public are opposed to gay marriage than in favour of it. But the gap is not as great as some imagine. As I noted earlier this week, according to a recent YouGov poll, 43 per cent of voters support gay marriage, with 47 per cent opposed [32 per cent of whom support the current alternative of civil partnerships] and 10 per cent undecided. Worryingly for Cameron, however, while 51 per cent of Labour voters and 53 per cent of Lib Dems support same sex marriage, just 30 per cent of Tories do. I know of one pro-gay marriage Conservative MP who missed church on Sunday for fear of being accosted by parishioners. The concern among some Tories is that UKIP, explicitly opposed to gay marriage, will provide a welcome home for any would-be defectors.

And should Cameron change the law, he may not receive much credit for doing so. The YouGov poll I mentioned earlier revealed that 63 per cent of votes think that the PM supports gay marriage for purely "political reasons". Only 21 per cent think that he "genuinely believes that is the right thing to do". The greatest challenge for Cameron, then, is to convince the public that he is acting out of principle, rather than political expediency.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.