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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Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

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