David Cameron and the modernising wing of the Conservative Party will undoubtedly chalk last night’s Gay Marriage Bill up as a victory. And, yes, he was certainly successful in that his pet project was backed by a clear majority in the House. But at what price does this ‘victory’ come? With more than half of his own MP’s voting against the motion his success was achieved in spite of, not because of, the Party he leads, and it’s a situation which pains me no end. I’ve been an active member of the Conservative Party for fifty-three years now and I can say with confidence that this is one of the most difficult periods it’s ever faced. This isn’t just about the division in his MP’s over the vote; this is about the disillusionment running throughout the entire party. I’ve seen inter-party arguments over the years and I’ve seen numerous disputes and splits – God knows the Tory Party’s seen its fair share of in-fighting. But I’ve never experienced this level of disaffection before in the voluntary ranks. There is a growing chasm between the leadership and the Party itself and it leaves me deeply, deeply worried.
The division over the gay marriage debate is just one example of the growing tension, and Downing Street’s handling of the debate is demonstrative of the reasons that this tension exists in the first place. The leadership’s distancing of itself from the views of the Party members was evident from the very start of the process. I don’t recall a commitment to gay marriage being part of our manifesto or included in the Queen’s speech and I definitely don’t recall any meaningful consultation on the issue. Instead, it was thrust upon the Party and we were all expected to fall in line behind it. Perhaps if Mr Cameron and his advisers had bothered to take a proper sounding on the issue they might have understood how divisive the topic would be and approached it with more tact. But that’s never been the way under this leadership. The fact is that Downing Street is filled with people who all think the same way. There’s no link to the wider party; no voice representing party activists at the constituency level. As leader of the Party, Mr Cameron is remarkably out of touch in that respect. Too often we’ve seen him acting as though he’s the Party’s proprietor but he needs to understand that he is its caretaker. He must reflect the views of his supporters. Instead, he seems to see his Party members as something of an embarrassment when they don’t subscribe to his social crusades. It showed throughout the gay marriage debate as he reacted to his party’s objections. He seemed continually baffled that there should be any opposition at all, perhaps best illustrated by his eleventh hour plea yesterday for his MP’s to follow him to the ‘yes’ lobby – a plea that was resoundingly ignored.
Perhaps the most pertinent question is why the leadership felt that this was a priority at all. I understand that feelings run high on the issue but, in the eyes of the law, civil partnerships provided exactly the same rights and protections as marriage. At the heart of it the legislation changes nothing in that regard. It is essentially a lexical issue – a question of vocabulary. Meanwhile, the country faces the worst economic outlook in memory. Economic growth remains elusive, housing remains in short supply, the EU continues to waste taxpayers’ money and millions of households continue to face spiralling energy and household bills. Those are just a few of the issues which, to my mind, should be higher on the Prime Minister’s list of priorities than the label we can give to a committed homosexual relationship. So why have we committed so many countless hours to debating just that? I don’t understand it and neither, as is apparent, do the majority of the voluntary workers.
So David Cameron may well bask for now in the rosy glow of headlines praising his personal bravery as a social campaigner. But when he comes back down to earth it will be to the reality of a Party whose MP’s he has split in half and whose members and activists are fed up with being ignored and talked down to. Election victories are built on the back of the groundwork done by Party activists. It is their campaigning and door-stepping which spread the Party message. The way things are going we will have diminished that force sizeably by 2015 and that will impact on the number of Conservative MP’s returned to Westminster. The Conservative Party leadership must start listening to what its Party actually wants and it must pay heed to the values the party holds dear to. Mr Cameron has an awful lot of work to do to achieve those objectives. The trouble is that he doesn’t have an awful lot of time in which to do it.