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18 January 2023

Will the Tories’ divisions on trans rights explode into the open?

Forty one Conservative MPs abstained on the gender bill vote and some believe the government’s approach is immoral and ineffective.

By Zoë Grünewald

The government’s stance on Scotland’s gender recognition bill is far from representative of the entire Conservative Party. Last night (17 January), 41 Tory MPs abstained from the vote to impose a section 35 order under the Scotland Act 1998, which would prevent the bill, which would have simplified the process for trans people to gain a gender recognition certificate, from gaining royal assent.

Some within the Conservative Party have privately expressed concern over the impact the feud between the UK and Scottish governments will have on the Union and also fear their party’s willingness to stoke culture wars is unethical and ineffective. This includes some MPs who voted in favour of invoking section 35.

One senior Tory MP told me in no uncertain terms that “[the Conservatives] should not be making trans people a constitutional football”, adding that the party is “setting itself up for an unpleasant fight that will be an absolute nightmare for everyone on all sides”. Another Tory MP said that blocking the legislation would be a “constitutional own goal” that would damage the relationship between England and Scotland.

Cracks are already showing. The liberal Tory Reform Group (TRG) publicly described Rishi Sunak’s decision to veto the legislation as a “deeply concerning development”. “Transgender and non-binary lives across the country are at risk of being used to play political games […] under successive governments, the equalities agenda has consistently been viewed as an issue to be debated but with little meaningful legislation,” the group said in a statement. “It is time to make some real progress.”

Though the statement reflects the views of the TRG as a whole, rather than individual MPs, it’s worth noting that the group’s patrons include Tom Tugendhat, the security minister, Robin Walker, chairman of the Education Select Committee, and Robert Buckland, the former justice secretary (who abstained on the section 35 vote).

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Some Tory MPs have been more vocal in their support of trans rights. Caroline Nokes, chairwoman of the Women and Equalities Committee, has argued for a gender self-identification system similar to the one the Scottish bill would create. Theresa May committed to gender recognition reform when she was prime minister in 2017 at a Pink News awards dinner in central London. Both Nokes and May abstained on the section 35 vote.

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The Conservative Party is home to the only openly transgender MP, Jamie Wallis, who began transitioning last year. Wallis has said of the present clash that “this situation risks exposing all of us as ridiculous”, and urged parliamentarians “to act swiftly and collaboratively – including those in devolved administrations – to bring clarity and peace of mind to trans people on how they go about living and thriving in His Majesty’s United Kingdom”.

Penny Mordaunt, the Leader of the House of Commons and former Tory leadership candidate, was also reported to be supportive of gender recognition reform before seemingly backtracking during last year’s leadership contest. 

For now, Wallis is the only Tory MP to have publicly criticised the government – and there are a number of probable reasons why. It is a polarising debate, in which many public figures have received abuse. Tory party sources also said that in some cases those who had publicly supported the trans community had been admonished by their colleagues.

Some MPs feel pressure to appease those in the party who vehemently oppose self-identification and “wokeism”, such as Kemi Badenoch, the equalities minister, who will lead a review of gender recognition legislation around the world.

Finally, there is concern over how public divisions will impact the Conservatives’ electoral prospects. But as the row intensifies, more MPs will be forced to publicly declare their position and the Tories could struggle to maintain unity on an issue that transcends normal political divides.

[See also: The gender reform bill is about something broader than trans rights]

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