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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle