Osborne speaks sense on gay marriage

Gay marriage is right and we must support it if we want to win, Chancellor tells the Tories.

George Osborne has always sat on the socially liberal wing of the Conservative Party, so it is no surprise that he is a strong supporter of gay marriage. But given the extent of opposition to the policy within Tory ranks (it is reportedly the top reason for members resigning from the party), it's still notable that he uses an op-ed (£) in today's Times to signal that the government will press ahead with plans to introduce it.

With an eye to Obama's victory last week, the Chancellor rightly concludes that social liberalism is the only electorally viable position. He notes that the Republicans "lost swathes of voters who were on their side of the economic argument" because of their stances on abortion and equal marriage, adding that he wouldn't change "the current abortion laws" (as his voting record indicates) and that he supports gay marriage "on principle".

But, as ever, Osborne, who is both Chancellor and the Tories' chief election strategist, also has psephological considerations in mind. He believes the Tories should support gay marriage not just because it is the right thing to do but because it will help them win in the future. Osborne slightly overstates his case by writing that a "clear majority of the public support gay marriage" (the polling evidence is more mixed, although polls generally show at least a plurality in favour) but his wider point - that support for gay marriage is only likely to grow with time - is spot-on. In an echo of Tony Blair, who Osborne refers to as "the master" for his election-winning abilities, he writes that "Successful political parties reflect the modern societies they aspire to lead". To this end, the Chancellor confirms that the government will "introduce a Bill to allow gay marriage."

Already, however, his comments have prompted a backlash from Conservatives. Stewart Jackson MP tweets that the Chancellor "should focus less on social liberal obsessions like gay marriage & more on outside M25 priorities like jobs, taxes & growth". It is, of course, possible to do both. What Tories like Jackson really mean when they say the government should "focus" on other issues is that they don't want it to ever introduce gay marriage. So long as the Conservative Party continues to boast such figures in its ranks, many socially liberal Britons will feel unable to vote for it.

George Osborne said the government would "introduce a Bill to allow gay marriage". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories