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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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.