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