Gay marriage: Cameron: from hero to renegade

For Eddie Ford, the gay marriage vote showed that the Tories are still the ‘nasty party’

Only two weeks ago, prime minister David Cameron was hailed as a hero by most of his party for promising to hold an in/out referendum on European Union membership. At last he was speaking up for true-blue values and uniting the party against the Brussels bureaucrats. Yet on February 5 more than half his MPs staged a rebellion by refusing to vote with him for gay marriage - ie, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. From hero to Guardian-reading liberal renegade within the space of a few days.

In the end, MPs backed the gay marriage bill in a free vote by 400 votes to 175 - a substantial majority, thanks to overwhelming Labour and Liberal Democrat support. Such a margin probably increases the chances of the bill being able to get through the House of Lords without the government having to rely on the Parliament Act to push it through. Though, given that the ‘other place’ is a nest of bigots and religious obscurantists, it might not be absolute plain sailing. If it becomes law it will enable same-sex couples, who are currently able to have civil partnerships (unlike opposite-sex couples), to get married in both civil and religious ceremonies - the latter only with the consent of religious institutions. The latter are covered by the strangely named ‘quadruple lock’ protection, which means that religious organisations cannot be challenged by equalities legislation and that no individual cleric can be compelled to marry same-sex couples.

Needless to say, Cameron was not the only senior Tory to throw his weight behind the bill. George Osborne, William Hague and Theresa May wrote a joint letter to The Daily Telegraph on February 5 saying that “marriage has evolved over time” - a quite correct assertion, of course - and that a “substantial majority” of Britons back gay marriage, so allowing this will “strengthen, not weaken, the institution”. The aim is also to promote “religious freedom”, they contended: why should faith groups, such as the Quakers, that wish to conduct gay marriages be forbidden from doing so? A worthwhile point.

However, despite this last-minute appeal, 136 of the 303 Conservatives MPs voted against the bill. Not only that, the refuseniks included two cabinet ministers - environment secretary Owen Paterson and Welsh secretary David Jones - two tellers, eight junior ministers and eight whips. Of the remaining Tory MPs, only 127 were in favour, while 35 did not vote, and five registered an abstention - like the former attorney general, Dominic Grieve - by voting both in favour and against (another archaic parliamentary practice). When added up, the result means that a clear majority of Tory MPs failed to support their leader.

After the vote, some Tories loudly grumbled - with a sort of perverse logic - that by so openly promoting the bill, David Cameron himself was actually acting to divide the party. Amongst them was Sir Gerald Howarth, an active Monday Club member who accused Cameron of turning the Conservative Party against itself on this “very sensitive issue”, for which he had “no mandate” - there was no specific commitment in the Conservative Party manifesto, for example. Similarly, Cheryl Gillan - the former Welsh secretary - bitterly complained that, aside from not appearing in the manifesto, gay marriage plans were neither in the coalition agreement nor in the queen’s speech.


It is clear then that, as with the EU referendum, Cameron has taken a gamble on the question - incurring the wrath of a large swathe of backbenchers and sections of the rightwing press. The very forces he was desperate to please and placate a few weeks ago. Quite a number of commentators have said that the vote was an “embarrassment” for Cameron, making him weaker.

Doubtlessly he would have preferred to have got the majority of Tory MPs backing him on February 5 - the more the better. Then again, finding himself opposed by the most obviously backward elements in his party on this question has the equally undoubted advantage of enhancing his credentials as a moderniser in the mould of Tony Blair - not to mention creating the image of a progressively minded social liberal grappling with unfortunate harsh economic realities. There is even the possibility that he genuinely believes in the principle of gay marriage.

Whichever way, his pro-gay marriage stance seems a lot less risky than his clever-stupid gamble over Europe. Clever because it reaps clear short-term advantages by outflanking Labour and stealing the United Kingdom Independence Party’s anti-Europe votes, making outright victory in the 2015 general election more likely. Stupid because in the long term it could genuinely split the Tory Party when after the real negotiations, as opposed to the fantasy ones, he come back from Brussels with a little piece of paper with not very much on it - to which the cabinet and the party respond by saying, ‘Not good enough - we want out of the EU’. Party turns inwards. Civil war ensues.

But with gay marriage, though nothing is ever totally certain, Cameron is showing that he is wider than his party. Going with the general flow of society. Blair sacrificially slayed the clause four shibboleth to appease the Murdoch gods and prove that New Labour was a safe pair of hands. (Though, of course, it had absolutely no impact upon real-world policy-making, as everyone knew.) It would not be raising expectations in any way whatsoever, contrary to what some on the left stupidly argued at the time (the ‘crisis of expectations’ that never happened). In his own way, Cameron is attempting to do the same with the lumbering beast that is the Tory Party. This has involved driving a stake through the heart of the odious section 28, going to the Norwegian Arctic on a World Wildlife Fund-sponsored trip, hugging hoodies - and now being new, metrosexual man, who has no anti-gay prejudices. Just call me Dave.

Judging purely by opinion polls, taken as a very rough guide to tomorrow’s voting intentions, Cameron’s gay marriage move was a pretty smart one. An ICM poll conducted just before Christmas found that 62% of voters now support the proposals, with 31% opposed, and most previous polls have found opinion leaning the same way. Meaning that the tide of opinion in favour of gay marriage has been steadily increasing and there is no reason to think this will change - quite the opposite. At the very least, it cannot do Cameron any harm electorally. Most people are not crazy, backward-looking or delusional - unlike so many Tory backbenchers, Ukipers and Church of England bishops.

Perhaps even more significantly, the same Christmas poll showed that a narrow majority of Conservative supporters backed gay marriage. Among the population as a whole, only the over-65s are against it, by 58% to 37%, but support is progressively stronger in younger age groups. The pro-reform majority is 64% among 35-64s, 75% among 25-34s, and 77% among 18-24s. A sign of the times. Unsurprisingly maybe, according to recent research undertaken by Pink News, the proportion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered voters backing the Conservatives has shot up from 11% at the 2010 election to 30% now. Two-thirds of respondents said the Tories’ (relative) support for same-sex marriage had made them view the party “more positively”.

God on their side

Naturally, Ed Miliband declared that February 5 had been a “proud day” and an “important step forward in the fight for equality” in Britain. Equality in marriage builds on Labour’s “successes in government”, which include repealing section 28, equalising the age of consent, introducing civil partnerships, changing the rules governing adoption, etc.

But David Lammy, MP for Tottenham and a former minister for innovation, went one stage further when he claimed that Labour - and all those who supported gay marriage - had god on their side. During the parliamentary debate he said that the Jesus he intimately knew “was an illegitimate refugee born with a death sentence on his head” and “would stand up for minorities” - including gay couples and their right to marry. Surely a clincher. For Lammy, Christianity was strengthened by gay marriage, not weakened.

On the other side though, Tory objectors appealed to biblical scripture and Christian theology. Jesus was rooting for them. Hence we had Sir Roger Gale, keen supporter of the death penalty, lambasting the government for undermining the sacred and presumably eternal institution of marriage. “Marriage is the union between a man and a woman,” not Adam and Steve, he thundered - it “has been historically” and “remains so”. Amen. He ranted: “It is Alice in Wonderland territory, Orwellian almost, for any government of any political persuasion to seek to come along and try to rewrite the political lexicon” - next we will be “allowing siblings to marry”. Another Tory MP, Matthew Offord, said the new law would open the way to the legal recognition of “polygamous unions” - the floodgates of depravity were opening.

On a slightly more prosaic, though still no less fanatical, level, Tony Baldry - who speaks for the church commissioners in the Commons - thought there was a “serious risk” that the European Court of Human Rights would “force” the church or a minister to marry gay couples. Pull the other one. Tory opponents of gay marriage accused ministers of trying to limit further scrutiny of the bill and vowed continued resistance.

Such objections to gay marriage are based on nothing more than good, old-fashioned homophobia - whether sanctified by god or not. Whilst David Cameron may be a new man who likes gays and the environment, the Tory Party he just happens to lead is still the “nasty party” that Theresa May described and warned about in 2002 - still “unrepentant, just plain unattractive”. And the gay marriage vote gruesomely showed that not much has changed over the last 10 years. No wonder Tory modernisers and reformers were horrified by the speeches given by anti-gay marriage MPs - one unnamed minister telling The Guardian that “with the help of four or five speeches we have been taken back more than 50 years to the horrors of the 1950s” (February 6).

Curiously, good Christian MPs, yes like Roger Gale, made the repeated assertion that marriage is the “union between one man and one woman” - simple as that. Look it up in the Bible. But, according to that book, Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines - the only wife mentioned by name is Naamah, who apparently was the mother of Solomon’s successor, Rehoboam (1 Kings 11:1-3). And, for the record, king David also had many wives, though the exact number is contested. Other such examples abound in the Bible. This led Edward Gibbon in The history of the decline and fall of the Roman empire to waggishly note that Mohammed, by comparison to Solomon, was extremely modest - he only had 14 wives. Nor does the New testament, for that matter, explicitly say anywhere that marriage has to be a union between “one man and one woman”, or for life.

Not only are Christian Tory opponents of gay marriage obnoxious bigots: theologically speaking, they are up a gum tree too.