by Mark Stockwell
Tonight’s vote on same-sex marriage will deepen the divide between Cameron and his party but ultimately it will make Conservative MPs more, rather than less, dependent on their leader.
The “rebels” (inverted commas, as it is technically a free vote) believe Cameron’s failure to win an overall majority marks him out as a loser and that they would do better without him. They were wrong to start with, and their actions over Europe and now same-sex marriage will make them even more wrong. Cameron may be a “posh boy who doesn’t know the price of milk” but on both these issues he’s more in tune with the electorate than those who seek to displace him.
If there is damage to the Conservative party, it will be a result of the right refusing to acknowledge that they are a busted flush electorally and grieving publicly for the lost causes they continue to espouse. The impression of disunity is far more damaging than the exaggerated fears of a small and dwindling section of the population around the validity of institutions, social or political, that they seem to think they have exclusive rights to define as they see fit.
That said, it is astonishing that so many of the supporters of same-sex marriage, both in the upper echelons of the Conservative party and their supporters in the media, have such a tin ear for the sensibilities of the Conservative party in parliament and at large, that they have chosen to frame their appeals to the traditionalists in terms of how their vote may be perceived in 10, 20, 50 years’ time.
This is straight out of the Whig version of history – a view which is just not shared by this section of the Conservative party. In fact, the traditionalists, almost by definition, see themselves as a bulwark against precisely this sort of progressive view of the world. The past (stuff that’s already happened) and the present (stuff that’s happening here and now and might get them re-elected) matter much more than the future (stuff that may or may not happen some time after the next election if these lefty johnnies get their way).
Telling them they are ‘on the wrong side of history’ is the equivalent of pointing out to Luis Suarez that taking a tumble in the box may get him a penalty, but it will look bad in the TV replay.
The debate over same-sex marriage has exposed what was already well-known – that there are scores of backwoodsmen (and women) who never came to terms with being married off to a self-proclaimed ‘liberal conservative’. In truth, Cameron himself probably hasn’t been best pleased with what he saw once the veil was lifted. But they both took the vows and now they’re stuck with each other – for better or worse.
Either party could file for divorce. The right could cite irreconcilable differences or adultery, with Nick Clegg as co-respondent. Cameron could cite unreasonable behaviour – with plenty of instances from which to choose, and no doubt plenty more to come.
One or two on the right may be tempted by an extra-marital dalliance with Nigel Farage’s UKIP. Cameron would be wise to let them have their fun and flirt a little, if they must. The vast majority of the malcontents understand all too well that they stand next to no chance of holding their seat at a general election under any other banner than the Conservative one, and with David Cameron as leader. That realisation is at the heart of their unhappiness.
It is no fun to be trapped in an unhappy marriage. But trapped they are.
Mark Stockwell is a former adviser to the Conservative party. He now works in public affairs