Cameron taking a gamble on gay marriage law
London Letter:Conservatives opposed to the law may punish the PM if it passes
One of the truisms of politics is that politicians bent on reform can afford to lose support from their existing ranks if they can more than replenish the numbers with new supporters.
Many Conservative MPs believe British prime minister David Cameron has forgotten this as he seeks to pass legislation next year legalising civil marriage and some church-approved ceremonies for gay people.
Under the proposal, the Church of England and the Church of Wales would be banned from carrying out such ceremonies, while the Catholic Church would be free not to hold them.
Meanwhile, religious groupings who favour gay marriage, such as liberal Jews, Unitarians and the Quakers, would be free to carry out such ceremonies, the Commons was told this week.
Undoubtedly, the legislation, if put to a free vote in the Commons, will pass. In the eyes of many, opponents of the change are simply homophobic.
Some no doubt are, but many have genuine concerns about religious freedom and that the difficulty for Cameron is not that he cannot get the legislation passed. He can. But it is far from certain that it will be passed with a majority of his own people.
Cameron has been here before. In 2006, Tony Blair had to depend on the then newly arrived Conservative leader to get some of his education reforms past angry Labour MPs.
Blair won that night, but it could be argued that his authority over his own was never the same. Cameron has already had shades of that strain of rebelliousness over Europe from his own party.
Some of this is about political strategy: a bid by Cameron to remove another vestige of “the Nasty Party” – as the Conservatives were once termed by Theresa May.
Cameron genuinely supports gay marriage. He believes, as a Conservative, that marriage is an institution that binds society together. Therefore, it should be available to all.
Opponents argue that the legislation is but another staging post by left-wingers to change British society beyond recognition, and to destroy religious faiths in the process.
Trust is at a premium. Ten years ago, many MPs were told civil partnership laws would not lead to demands for civil marriage. The Hansard record is there to prove it.
Today, they argue that gay marriage would fundamentally redefine the institution of marriage and damage its standing among heterosexual couples, making the latter less likely to take part in it.
If passed, the main churches will be next, facing legal challenges at home and in Strasbourg, they believe. Nonsense, says British culture secretary Maria Miller, religious freedom is long established.
Many Conservative MPs are viscerally opposed to the changes. Quite a few others have to say they are opposed to them because their constituency associations – mostly ageing and middle class – are opposed.
Some people in the constituencies have been baffled by Cameron since 2005, when he took over in a first flush of modernisation, promising an environmentally friendly, “welcome, all comers” government. His ranks, however, wanted to talk about the EU, immigration, criminality and other issues. They still do. If anything, they want to do so more than ever, particularly about the EU.
Opinion polls suggest that a majority of the British public favours the introduction of gay marriage – certainly in civil law – rather than simply continuing with civil partnerships for gay couples.
In reality, however, it would appear that a significant percentage of this group is “soft”, suggesting not that such support would disappear but that they do not feel so strongly about it that they will reward the man who brings it about.
However, many people are strongly opposed to gay marriage, and they may well punish such a figure. If they are Conservative, there is a danger that some will migrate to the UK Independence Party, which is posing an ever bigger danger to the Conservatives.
Besides promising to guarantee religious freedoms, Miller insists teachers and schools will not have to
change the way they teach marriage laws to pupils.
In the Commons, Miller was questioned several times. Teachers would be able to declare their own beliefs, while “importantly” also acknowledging that same-sex marriage would by then exist.
Even supporters of the legislation do not believe this promise would stand much of a chance of holding up to a challenge under equalities legislation.
The fact that Miller is prepared to say that teachers would be so protected
damages her credibility with some of those who want to believe her guarantees about religious freedom.