By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter.
When I left the Commons in 2010, the local Association activists were more or less the same people as when I entered it in 2001 – though, of course, older. Others had died during that decade or so, like other, less active members. Others still failed to renew their membership, or moved away from the High Wycombe area. But they were essentially the same people at the end as at the start: decent, hard-working, public-spirited, not always well-off, seldom movers and shakers (unlike some of the people I worked with at Westminster, though this wasn't necessarily to their disadvantage), distinguishable from their neighbours largely by being politically active – and, by the end of my time as the local MP, a bit more set in their ways, as older people tend to be.
As time like an ever-rolling stream bore those ten years away, I noticed a change in their attitude to the party leadership. They didn't exactly become more disenchanted – though this was so in some cases – but they definitely became more detached, as all the while around them election turnout stayed very low, public disenchantment with the political system grew, and party membership fell further. After David Cameron became leader in 2005, trying to report what he was doing became rather like trying to explain to an elderly couple what their grandson was up to. Imponderable words and phrases began to flow from my lips even more frequently than usual: "huskies…modernisation…inclusivity…hoodies".
At best, they would smile, benignly puzzled. At worst, they would complain about the conduct of the new, young leader for whom (in most cases) they had voted. But much of the time, they simply looked rather baffled, as older people presumably do when their grandchildren babble of Nintendo Wii's and DS's. Frankly, I found this a bit frustrating, all the more so when they stubbornly steered the conversation back to the meat, potatoes and two veg of Tory political discourse: the EU, immigration, crime and (in this case) Gordon Brown's destruction of pensions. These activists may have been unlike the sharp-suited pace-setters at Westminster, but they were more like many Tory MPs of my acquaintance than either would usually acknowledge.
If I was sometimes a bit impatient, hasn't Mr Cameron, from his more exalted position, been even more so? Consider, for example, the A-list and his attempt to abolish the '22. Some Conservative backbenchers would go further, complaining of double standards over expenses trangressions, and a hasty stampede into coalition: the Prime Minister, they complain, would rather work with Nick Clegg than with them. Mr Cameron is too urbane – one might say too well-mannered – to tell his members that they're seen as "the Nasty Party", but when he complained of them "banging on about Europe", his exasperation showed through. None the less, he has avoided seeking a single "Clause Four" moment with which to confront them.
Until now. For there can be no other explanation for his decision to seek to rush a bill on same- sex marriage through the Commons, against the wishes of a majority of his own MPs (let no-one claim that there will be one without his backing), splitting them from top to bottom in the process – and all without a manifesto or Coalition Agreement or Queen's Speech mention. As I say, Mr Cameron has to date avoided a single big Clause Four-type gesture, preferring a series of smaller ones. Some of them led nowhere, such as the ruling-out of expansion at Heathrow. Others helped take the party out of opposition, such as George Osborne's rejection of tax cuts without proper spending control, and the Prime Minister's own personal commitment to the NHS.
That's the point about modernisation: every leader needs to do it continuously, taking his supporters with him as he does so and gathering new ones along the way – the route favoured by John Howard and George W Bush and Stephen Harper and every successful modern centre-right leader in the Anglosphere. What none of these winners did was to pick a scrap with his own party, over an issue about which many on the other side of the argument feel very deeply, for no immediate electoral benefit. The sum of the polling on same-sex marriage shows the following: there is a majority or plurality of support for it; a sizeable minority is opposed; if introduced, few voters will switch either way, and above all, few want it to take up too much Government time.
In the long run, the measure will probably be helpful to the party, since older voters mostly oppose same-sex marriage, and younger ones mainly support it. But in the short-term, it will undoubtedly be harmful, since those younger voters won't switch their votes to Mr Cameron as a result in 2015, but some older party activists (as opposed to voters) will decamp – perhaps to UKIP, which is manoevering to exploit the Prime Minister's mistake, more likely to nowhere. If I was sometimes impatient locally and Mr Cameron more widely, the more fool both of us, especially him. The ground war matters in general elections. The union presence on the ground helped Labour punch above its weight two years ago.
Without those activists to stand for council elections, campaign on local issues, knock on doors, phone voters and be in all the places that a candidate can't, the party can kiss goodbye in 2015 to some of the seats it now holds. Seen in this light, the Prime Minister's backing of same sex marriage begins to look like the most unselfish political act he has ever taken, since the benefits to his party will come after he, in all likelihood, has ceased to lead it. Since politicians aren't usually selfless, his conduct is so peculiar as almost to defy explanation. "He's doing it because he thinks it will demonstrate strong leadership," one shrewd observer told me. But is this correct, especially if the Lords throws a Bill out? Is such an effect even measurable?
"He's doing it because he thinks it's right," said a supporter. Presumably so. But I can't help thinking that there's more to it. The parade of Cabinet supporters last weekend reminded me of Michael Portillo's leadership campaign in 2001, with its drum-roll of high-level backers. Team Portillo aimed to start a unstoppable bandwagon. Instead, the vehicle crashed and the party got Iain Duncan-Smith. Mr Portillo has departed but his spirit lives on. It sees support for same-sex marriage as a touchstone of social acceptability, and those activists and MPs as an embarrassment – elderly relatives who have escaped the granny annexe and crashed the drinks party. Like King Lear, these foolish, fond older men and women must be cast out if necessary.
Stonewall's Ben Summerskill says that gay people vote "increasingly in line with the rest of the population". But a mere 16 per cent of ethnic minority voters backed the Tories in 2010. Seen in this light, isn't Downing Street's stress on same-sex marriage a bit disproportionate? Why has the Chancellor, so pointed on the subject of gay rights, nothing to say about his party's difficulty with ethnic minority voters? I wonder if Team Cameron is simply more familiar with gay people (if drawn from a similar social background, anyway) than with ethnic minorities. Socially and culturally, it varies little – in class and age terms, at any rate. There is no senior, pre-2001 MP to advise – to remind the Heir to Portillo that disdain for one's colleagues is scarcely less corrosive than contempt.