Mr Cameron and the swivel-eyed loons

If you can get past the paywall, go and read Guy Rundle’s piece in today’s Crikey on the travails of David Cameron. It’s very atmospheric and in places (as you’d expect) very funny. There’s a serious issue there about same-sex marriage vs civil partnership, which I might write about another time, but for now let’s focus on what’s happening to Britain’s Conservative Party.

Partly it’s just a problem of timing. Two issues have come to the boil at once: relations with the EU, brought to a head by the strong performance of the anti-Europe UK Independence Party in this month’s local elections, and now same-sex marriage. Either on its own could be dealt with, but the combination is looking deadly.

It’s not so much a matter of fighting on two fronts as having given the same enemy two different lots of ammunition. The fundamental problem in both cases is the philosophical divergence between Cameron and his immediate allies on one hand, and a large slab of backbench and grassroots Tory opinion on the other.

Cameron clearly holds a dim view of his opponents. He’s previously described UKIP as full of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”; now one of his senior people has referred to the Tory backwoodspeople as “swivel-eyed loons”. But in the past Cameron has shown full awareness of the need to throw such people a bone every now and then. As I put it nearly four years ago (the issue was where the Tories sit in the European parliament):

Major parties always represent a broad coalition of views, and to play relentlessly to just one side is to court disaster. Cameron has chosen an issue on which he evidently feels he can do something to keep his right wing happy without risking anything important in the main game of domestic politics.

Over time, however, being different things to different people becomes more and more difficult. For a party whose origins are based on religion as much as class, same-sex marriage was never going to be easy, and strong words have been used in recent days. A group of Conservative activists called the bill “flawed, un-Conservative, divisive, and costing us dearly in votes and membership,” and accused Cameron of “utter contempt for ordinary people.”

And yet. No-one should ever have been under the illusion that Cameron’s views were not out of step with a lot of Conservative opinion. He was chosen as a liberal, as an acknowledgement that the party had drifted too far to the right and needed to change course to be able to win government. The membership that elected him made the bargain with their eyes open; one commentator described the party at the time as “trusting, excited, a little terrified of the risk they have just taken, but with a sense that absolutely anything could happen next.”

Go back and read the piece by Andrew Rawnsley that I quoted back in February – it makes Cameron’s dilemma clear:

Because he was not clear, the enemies of modernisation within his party were never fully confronted and defeated. He campaigned for the leadership on the slogan “change to win”. But it only half-changed and then it only half-won.

In fact, the Tories are not uniformly enemies of modernity (they would never have elected Cameron if they were, no matter how desperate they were), and the current revolt, although widespread, is still probably not fatal for Cameron. Although the media didn’t seem to think so, the vote on the EU referendum could have been a lot worse: the large majority of the party still backed the government’s position.

Nor, on the specific question of same-sex marriage, is it at all clear that Cameron could have done any better. Given the traction the issue has got in the rest of the world there was no chance it could be kept off the agenda entirely. The alternatives were either to embrace it explicitly, or to keep quiet as a government and hope that, with suitable encouragement, a sympathetic backbencher could get it through with cross-party support.

The second option might have worked better, but there’s a pretty good chance it wouldn’t have – that, without endorsement from the top, same-sex marriage would have been overwhelmingly opposed by Tory MPs and as a result would have either (a) been defeated on the floor of the Commons or (b) been carried almost entirely on Labour and Liberal Democrat votes. Either outcome would have cast the Tories as villains in the eyes of the majority of the electorate.

For the Conservatives to purge Cameron as too liberal would be to commit electoral suicide, and most of them know it. They might not like him, but for the foreseeable future they’re stuck with him.

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