Whatever they do, right-wing parties will lose out from the equal marriage debate

As the issue of same-sex unions finally turns into a parliamentary debate on both sides of the Channel, it is becoming more and more obvious that the Conservatives and their French counterparts have little to win and a lot to lose.

In the past few months, Britain and France have both faced the question of gay marriage – the French took to the streets, as it’s what they do best, and the Brits discussed it at lengths in pubs all around the country. What these countless conversations, columns and blog posts revealed was something quite peculiar: one side of the political compass had got caught in bitter infighting. For once, it wasn’t the Left.

When David Cameron announced in November that he was backing plans to allow gay marriage, he was faced with one of the biggest backlashes since the beginning of his leadership. The Daily Mail called it “the biggest Tory party rebellion in modern times”, but for once was barely exaggerating: by early December, 118 Tory MPs out of 303 had expressed their opposition to the proposal. A week later, a group of 19 cabinet ministers and other senior figures, including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, wrote an open letter to the Sunday Telegraph, saying they were supporting the Prime Minister’s decision. Meanwhile, 64 per cent of voters are still against the proposed law.

Not that it’s any easier for the Union for a Popular Movement (the French leading centre-right party): their situation is fairly different, as they’re currently in opposition, but it’s far from simple. The official party line is to actively refuse any legalisation of same sex unions, but well known party members are heavily encouraged to keep their personal opinions to themselves. It is rumoured that 10% of MPs are actually in favour of it, but no one dares to speak out, which not only dampers the image of the party, but drove several important figures to leave.

Ex-MP Chantal Jouanno is one of them: when announcing that she was joining the UDI, a centre-right coalition created by Jean-Louis Borloo (himself a UMP renegade), she made it clear that she was pro-gay marriage and against her former party’s authoritarian stance on social issues. While seemingly anecdotal, this event tells a lot about the current state of the French (not-so) moderate right: though Sarkozy was criticised for flirting with the National Front’s extreme right, the recent election of the more radical Jean-Francois Coppé as a new leader shows a completely unashamed shift to the right. And this does not please everyone: the day he got elected, dozens of grassroots militants and (mainly young) voters cancelled their memberships, and posted pictures of their UMP cards cut in half on social media. By trying to reconnect with the people who chose the NF at the last elections, the UMP gradually losing the support of the centre and centre-right.

In a way, what’s currently going on in France is the opposite of what has been troubling the Conservatives recently. When he won the leadership bid, David Cameron promised to try his best to get rid of this ‘nasty party’ image, and regain some grounds on the centre. His strategy seemingly was to become more liberal on social issues regarding ethnic minorities or homosexuals, in order to appear like a more human and modern PM. This failed on several levels: when asked in October, 40 per cent of people thought that the Conservatives still were the “party of the rich”, and a third said that they were not sufficiently handling the NHS and other public services. Yet, the more right wing of the party feel that Cameron is not doing enough on traditional Tory issues - like the EU - and several backbenchers have threatened to defect to Ukip.

And things are not about to get any better: even if the Prime Minister and most of his cabinet ministers have publicly announced that they would vote in favour of a gay marriage law, well over a third of his MPs will oppose the legislation. Compared to the 80 per cent – at least - of Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs expected to support the bill, the Tories will find themselves on the wrong side of history. Remarkably, this still remains Cameron’s best case scenario: it’s still difficult to imagine that, even if he were to whip, or simply encourage his party to vote in favour, it would do much for his tarnished public image.

At least the UMP doesn’t even have to face a similar conundrum: with Jean-Francois Coppé having already admitted that he was not only against but “hostile” to the proposal, any sort of U-turn would be out of the question. Instead, the choice the UMP will have to make is whether to continue actively opposing the reforms – like they have been doing so far – or giving up and realising that the more vocal they are about the issue, they more irrelevant they’re beginning to appear. Seeing as the Socialist Party will almost unanimously vote for the legalisation of gay weddings, and that both centre-left and centre-right parties will give their MPs a free vote, it is almost certain to assume that the project will become law.  

So, in the great contest of right wing parties versus gay marriage, who will become the biggest losers? Will it be the Tories, when David Cameron finally realises that on top of being hated by the Liberal Democrats, Labour, and most of the public, he’s also managed to become out-of-touch from the core of his own party? Or will it be the UMP, when the ashamed moderate-right joins the UDI instead, and the bigoted hard-right defects to the National Front? 

Two men kiss during a demonstration in support of the legalisation of gay marriage [Photo: Alejandro Pagni/AFP/Getty Images]

Marie le Conte is a freelance journalist.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

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