How Cameron could ease Tory anger over gay marriage

The Prime Minister could promise to meet his pledge to introduce a married couples' tax allowance in return for support over the issue.

As the government prepares to announce plans to bring forward legislation on gay marriage, the growing divisions within the Conservative Party over the issue are being exposed. Yesterday, David Davies MP described the policy as "barking mad", adding, apropos of nothing, that "most parents would prefer their children not to be gay". Meanwhile, Peter Bone told Sky News: "It was in no party manifesto, there is no mandate for the Prime Minister to do this; he is absolutely wrong to be doing it now, and he's splitting the Conservative Party when we don't need it to be split."

To counterbalance such figures, a group of senior Conservatives, including Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin, and former justice minister Nick Herbert, have founded a new group, Freedom to Marry, to campaign for equal marriage. In a letter to the Sunday Telegraph, they wrote: "We recognise that civil partnerships were an important step forward in giving legal recognition to same sex couples. But civil partnerships are not marriages, which express a particular and universally understood commitment."

Today, they are joined by John Major, who declared in a statement released through the group, "The Prime Minister's instinct to support equal marriage is a courageous and genuine attempt to offer security and comfort to people who - at present - may be together, yet feel apart."

That such senior figures feel the need to campaign for what is, after all, already government policy, is an indication of how weak David Cameron's position is. If the PM is forced to rely on the votes of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs to pass the bill (at least 130 Tory MPs are prepared to vote against it), he will be exposed as the leader of a divided and, in places, bigoted party. Rather than casting the Conservative Party in a positive light, the issue could only serve as a reminder of how unreconstructed parts of it remain. Cameron will lose Conservative votes over the issue, while failing to gain those of liberals.

If the PM wants to limit the extent of the Conservative rebellion, one option would be to fulfil his long-standing pledge to recognise marriage in the tax system (as ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie has argued). The Coalition Agreement (see p. 30) promised to introduce transferable tax allowances for married couples, while guaranteeing Lib Dem MPs the right to abstain, and the measure is reportedly under consideration for next year's Budget. By pledging to bring forward this policy for straight and gay couples alike, Cameron could drain some of the poison from the Tory revolt.

To be clear, he would be wrong to do so (there is no good argument for privileging married couples over others) and such a move may not even succeed in winning the rebels round. In today's Telegraph, demands the introduction of a tax allowance for married couples, while rebuking Cameron for his support for gay marriage. He writes:

The CSJ’s poll, published today, reveals that not just 47 per cent of Conservative supporters feel betrayed by the PM on this omission [Cameron's failure to introduce a tax allowance for married couples] but 35 per cent of all voters. I doubt that the Government will enjoy anything like compensatory approval ratings for announcing in the same week that gay marriage has apparently become a more urgent issue for Government action, despite no similar manifesto commitment to legislate and after a massive consultation exercise that has been overwhelmingly negative.

All the same, it would be surprising if Cameron wasn't considering a grand bargain along these lines.

David Cameron addresses guests at a Gay Pride reception in the garden at 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.