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Thank heavens that's over. If I never hear the words "equal marriage" again until doomsday, it'll still be too soon. On the second reading I make it that Cameron had 136 MPs vote against him vs 127 against, with 42 abstensions.
In the aftermath of the vote, many Cameroons declared that he wasn't damaged because this was a free vote. That's just incomprehensible to me. A majority of a Prime Minister's own party has not voted with him on Second Reading on a measure he brought foward, supported, and gave government time to. I've no idea when that can last have happened – maybe something on Home Rule or tariff reform in the 1920s?
In 2004, just 37 Conservatives voted against civil partnerships at Second Reading. I think there was every reason, at the outset, to believe either a reform to civil partnerships or a form of gay marriage could have been introduced for which the Conservative opposition was less than 37. Surely with good handling opposition could have been less than 50. But the debate spiralled out of control, going crazy on both sides, and by the time Cameron's team realised what terrible trouble they were in, they were too committed to withdraw. A measure they probably intended mainly for political reasons – as part of the detoxification strategy – but also perhaps partly to help secure the place of homosexuals in society has ended up stirring up enormous antipathy against homosexuals, of a sort I've not seen for twenty years, and has thoroughly re-toxifed the party. What voters will remember from last night is not the passage of some pointless gay marriage bill - most voters thought gay marriage has existed since civil partnerships came in and that the debate was over, and didn't really care much either way about the recent discussion – but that half the Conservative Party voted against a gay rights measure – "Same old nasty Tories."
Strategically, it's a disaster. Following on from the total failure to capitalise on the EU referendum speech, and Ed Miliband's political vulnerability in responding to it, it's a party management and party image management catastrophe.
Cameron still faces his four basic problems:
- He's part of the same clique that lost in 2001 and 2005 and then 2010, and having lost with the same strategy – steer clear of mainstream issues such as public service reform or the economy and try to move the debate onto something else, such as Europe or asylum-seekers or gypsies or gay rights or green issues - three times we've all stopped believing that we can win by being inauthentic and pretending we're something we're not. We want to be Conservatives. We believe the voters might vote for us if we're openly Conservative, and feel it's been demonstrated repeatedly that we won't win if we pretend we're something else.
- In 2010, not merely did Cameron fail to win, but he failed to win when not winning seemed inconceivable given the state of the economy and the failings of his opponent.
- In 2009 Cameron led the lynch mob against his own MPs on the expenses scandal. That's all very well, but don't expect any loyalty from them later.
- Many of the 2010 intake were originally selected standing against A-listers, and as such were folk Cameron was against from the off, and so feel little loyalty to him now.
The above problems might have been covered up if the economy had gone well, he had secured substantial repatriation of powers from the EU, and opinion polls suggested we might win in 2015. As matters stand, though, he's in terrible trouble.
Conventional wisdom appears to have it that there's "no chance" of his being replaced by 2015. I've privately advised eighteen months that I thought he was mild odds against lasting as PM until 2015. My view is that his survival chances have recently picked up a little, and he's now mild odds in favour of lasting through to 2015. But either way, his position is not secure by any means. Some folk appear to believe he's secure because he out-polls his party. But if you are more popular than your party mainly because your party is enormously unpopular as a consequence of your own tactical and strategic errors, being more popular than your party is not a good indicator of your electoral value!
Following (a) his catastrophic failure to follow up on his EU referendum pledge – which was his main political card to unify the Party behind him, short of breaking the Coalition with the Lib Dems and going for a short-lived minority government – a failure that beggars belief, given how politically vulnerable Ed Miliband was in the immediate aftermath; and (b) his appalling mishandling of the gay marriage issue, he now absolutely must win in Eastleigh, or he is odds on to face an explicit opponent challenging him (yeah, yeah – procedurally that means a confidence vote etc.) either later this year or early next, unless the economy picks up dramatically.
Cameron does, however, have his own considerable strengths – as I've argued repeatedly in the past when (for my sins) I've defended him. If he can win in Eastleigh, nail Labour on the EU referendum, and turn round the economy, he can get through and it's game on. A big challenge and it's getting last minute - but he does best when he faces a last-minute challenge, so his demise is by no means certain yet.