On the Andrew Marr show this morning Philip Hammond, the Conservative defence secretary, claimed that the government must be seen to be focussing on things “that matter” rather than pushing through proposals to allow gay couples to marry in the same way that heterosexual couples may. Whilst practically Hammond is probably correct, in terms of the Conservative Party’s ability to gain a second term in office he is almost certainly wrong.
Although the inevitable centre-piece of the next general election will be the condition and prospects of the British economy and whether or not the current coalition government’s fiscal policy has had the desired effect, Cameron cannot allow his Conservative backbenchers to force him to ignore the modernising issues that initially made the Tories an electable presence for the average man and woman.
The reason why David Cameron has been such a successful leader of the Tory party is that he has endeavoured to, and at least partially succeeded in, distancing the Tory party from their ‘nasty’ reputation. Even whilst implementing swingeing cuts that have often seemed reminiscent of the Thatcher era and risk exposing the coalition as heartless, Cameron has managed to maintain some kind of modern, caring Conservative reputation. Cameron’s ‘hug-a-hoodie’ and ‘hug-a-husky’ image was the factor that enabled him to take full advantage of New Labour’s errors and almost grab a Tory majority in a country that was still very cautiously warming towards a party that they remember as brutal and self-serving.
The importance of the proposals over gay marriage is that it will once again allow Cameron to show that his Tory party are modernised, more liberal, and more attuned to the desires of voters up and down the country. The arguments for gay marriage are many and strong, and I believe that the public wishes to see this change implemented. Were the Tory party to oppose these plans, the party’s new image, so assidiously soughtafter by Cameron, will be left in tatters.
Of further importance is the timing of the issue. Following the beating the Conservative Party took in the local elections, and under fire from those who see Cameron’s ‘nice’ reputation as a fad, the Tory’s look more and more as if they are making their party unelectable. Commentators have already begun to pounce on Cameron for rejecting his nice image upon gaining power and instead tending the needs of Tory backbenchers, many of whom are still campaigning for the wishes of an electorate very much stuck in the past. Others are fearful of the growth of UKIP and the potential of the party to haemorrhage right-wing voters to Farage and his cronies.
Although on the surface the issue of gay marriage may look unimportant when compared to the state of the economy and other major issues, to many it is a test of the government’s commitment to equality and liberal ideas that Cameron so heartily espoused in the run up to the 2010 election. The issue is far too important for Cameron and the Tories to ignore, particularly if they want to salvage their ‘nice’ new image that helped them into government.