The conventional wisdom is wrong, David Cameron has been strengthened by the Tory rebellion on gay marriage

by Atul Hatwal

Tory splits, MPs in open revolt and a beleaguered Conservative prime minister; it all seems rather 1990s. Labour tacticians are rubbing their hands in barely concealed glee. The political fall-out will be devastating, or so the conventional wisdom goes.

Weak leadership, political incompetence and an out of touch party do indeed dominate today’s news stories. And Labour does seem to be receiving a poll boost from this latest bout of Tory fratricide.

But David Cameron is not John Major, and in the medium term he will be strengthened by the rebellion.

Three points differentiate what happens next for the current prime minister from the fate of his Conservative predecessor.

First, the vote was won. Even with the Tory rebellion, this bill which David Cameron has staked so much upon, will become law. Yes, it was only won with Labour and Lib Dem votes, but to the general public this is a nuance: the prime minister emerged triumphant.

In the 1990s, the truly memorable occasions were when John Major was defeated.  Think Maastricht or VAT on fuel, few remember the countless near defeats where Major somehow squeaked through. A win is a win and Cameron will now have a genuine legacy achievement to point to.

Second, by taking on his party, Cameron has defined very clearly that he is a different type of Conservative to most of the rest of his colleagues. While many of his MPs do their level best to live up to the billing “same old Tories”, Cameron is vividly showing how he isn’t.

One of the mistakes the Tories made under both William Hague and Michael Howard was failing to understand how their stance on individual issues impacted the public’s overall view of the party.

Their obsession with Europe and immigration might have made for good day to day headlines, and been popular with sections of the electorate, but at election time, mainstream voters looked at the Tories and concluded that if they were this right-wing on Europe and immigration, then they would probably also privatise the NHS and laugh as pensioners starved in their freezing homes.

By taking a liberal stand on gay marriage, David Cameron has helped buy himself the benefit of the doubt from voters on all the other issues where they might suspect a traditional Tory.

When Labour next try to paint him as a heartless Tory slasher of the welfare state, the frame won’t quite fit. Because of last night, the prime minister’s stances on Europe, the deficit and the NHS will be perceived that much less as ideological reflex and that bit more as reasoned judgement.

Third, Cameron’s great strength as an opposition leader and in his early days in office was as a centrist, bipartisan figure.  By leading a coalition of Tories, Lib Dems and Labour, and winning the vote, Cameron is once more that uniting leader.

The greater the vitriol spewed against him by his right-wing, the less he is seen as a member of the Conservative party and more as a cross-party prime minister.

Expect plenty of targeted reminders in Tory advertising, in the coming months and years, of David Cameron’s ability to reach across political divide on issues of principle and build consensus.

Gay marriage has enabled David Cameron to reclaim some of his centrist credentials. He might have thought he could carry his party with him, he might even have expected this as the likely result until recently; but regardless, this issue was always going to be a win-win for him.

Either the party followed him, giving him a genuine clause four moment or he defined himself as a unifying centrist, quite different from his hidebound, stultified party.

Undoubtedly, David Cameron would have preferred the former, but at the next election, the latter will still serve him well.

Atul Hatwal is editor at Uncut

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8 Responses to “The conventional wisdom is wrong, David Cameron has been strengthened by the Tory rebellion on gay marriage”

  1. swatantra says:

    The Tory Party have been on a journey since the 1970’s, they’ve chosen plebs or grocers as Leaders. Dave was a bit of a throwback to the old patrician days and he could well be the last toff standing. The next Leader is likely to be Hague or Davis or May, but never George or Adam.

  2. Felix says:

    “the prime minister emerged triumphant”

    No he didn’t. All the footage on TV was of him timidly hiding in his bunker, not bravely fronting up his critics as John Major did.

  3. Patrick James says:

    I think that David Cameron was much better for his own interests to go with equality for marriage however I don’t think he has “emerged triumphant”.

    The problem he has had is that the majority of the Conservative party voted against this reform. If the majority had voted in favour then the opposition in the party would have looked like a smaller part, of decreasing influence.

    As the “nasty party” has shown itself to be the largest part of the Conservatives the Labour party can say with a lot of credibility that David Cameron is not the real face of the Conservative party.

  4. paul barker says:

    Surely the reason Cameron can present himself as a “cross-party” PM is because he leads a coalition. Can you really imagine that a majority Tory government would have brought forward this legislation ?
    In 2015 Cameron will have to run as the Leader of the Conservatives, he cant say “vote for us & get a coalition”, the only way to make a coalition More likely is to vote Libdem.
    In 2015 Cameron will appear as the weak leader of a divided party.

  5. Cameron himself did not turn up.

    These are far more Labour and Lib Dem refusals to support this Bill, even at Second Reading, than had been predicted. Many a speech by a Labour MP who voted in favour nevertheless expressed deep unhappiness about this Bill, which is horrendously drafted, yet which cannot be any other way in order to achieve its objective. Having voted for the principle, they will not vote for the final text to become law.

    This Bill will never reach Third Reading.

  6. Robert says:

    Yes, the vote was won in a free vote, so it does not make much difference that it was opposed by many Tory MPs. Cameron should learn that he does not need to take much notice of his bonkers back benchers.

  7. Craig Nelson says:

    One doesn’t have a 400-175 majority at second reading and not get to third reading (House of Lords reform failed through not getting the programme motion) especially with all the pain already endured for it. I think it more likely that the majority will go up as the debate proceeds though the buffer is large enough to lose a few votes.

    I do think that conventional wisdom is wrong. I think the reform will enhance Cameron’s standing and reputation. The malcontents really have no where to go. True they can pull the house down around their ears if that’s what floats their boat – maybe they weren’t that attached to being MPs. Cameron may lose the election, true, but it won’t be because of this. If he wins it won’t be because of this but it is part of his legacy apart from cuts and the bedroom tax and preparing to leave the EU.

  8. AnneJGP says:

    As I understand it, the government was obliged by the EU to bring forward something on this topic.

    My own view is the main social impact of this legislation will be to change the concept of Divorce, not of Marriage as many people believe.

    I also think it more likely that Mr Cameron’s loss of votes will be from people who cannot bring themselves to vote for the person who brought this in, rather than from being perceived as a weak leader.

    Like Craig Nelson, I think it will enhance Mr Cameron’s standing & reputation, and that he won’t lose the GE over this issue.

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