By Tim Montgomerie
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81 Tory MPs rebelled on David Nuttall's EU referendum motion.
91 Tory MPs voted against Lords reform.
136 Tory MPs voted, last night, against the Tory leadership's position on gay marriage. Another forty abstained.
Technically, of course, last night's vote wasn't a rebellion against government policy. It was a free vote. But it was certainly a vote against one of David Cameron's most important initiatives since becoming Prime Minister and also against his model of modernisation. Read today's papers and the result is certainly being presented as a rebellion against his authority. The party looks divided in the eyes of voters and voters don't like divided parties. Very divided. Some gay people may have new confidence in the PM but less faith in the Conservative Party.
It was exactly one year ago, on 6th February 2012, that I made my case for same-sex marriage and I am glad that the measure passed yesterday but the politics of the last year have not been good. Number 10 needs to learn some big lessons from the whole debate if the party is not going to become increasingly difficult to lead:
- Cameron needs a broader team inside Number 10. Would the Tory leader have gone ahead with this measure if he had known that it would cause such division in his parliamentary party, such distraction from the Coalition's main purposes and such dissension inside local parties? My guess is 'no'. A year ago David Burrowes MP did predict that one hundred Tory MPs would rebel. He actually underestimated the rebellion but was right about its overall scale. The PM could do with a few more people inside his Downing Street team with different opinions and life experiences. Downing Street is a bit too Economist and not enough Spectator at the moment. A bit too cappuccino and not enough builder's tea. Appointing David Burrowes as a second PPS would be a good idea.
- Cameron needs to fight harder for his beliefs. I was very surprised that we saw so little of David Cameron in the run up to yesterday's debate (until about 6pm yesterday evening in a 23rd hour, 59th minute intervention). He took a principled stand on equal marriage but didn't then fight for it. He didn't even turn up for the debate. We see the same pattern again and again. Look at the Europe speech. We had 48 hours of action but then silence. Where was the million volt effort to paint Ed Miliband as the man who won't give the people a choice? Speeches never become campaigns. Cameron should have been out there arguing for his position on same-sex marriage. People may not have agreed with him but they'd see a man willing to depend a principled belief. He would challenge the idea that he's just a PR guy. By appearing so detached from his view he actually reinforces the view that his was a position of modernising posture rather than personal conviction.
- Cameron needs to remember he manages two coalitions. The PM needs to worry about his internal Tory coalition as well as his external coalition with Nick Clegg. Holding twiglet and chardonnay receptions is not the same as effective party management. Encouraging allies in the press to attack your own backbenchers isn't helpful either. Good party management involves a balanced policy and strategy. In particular, the Tory leader hasn't looked after his party's social conservatives. The weekend's decision to delay the married tax allowance for the FOURTH successive time was very unwise. Cameron should be doing a lot more on religious liberty. I suggested on Sunday that he seeks a new settlement on what religious freedom should mean in an age of equality. It would help mend some very broken relationships with his party and with the churches.
Today the focus shifts to the Mid Staffordshire hospital crisis. Over on Comment Julia Manning provides an excellent overview of the tragic events that unfolded under Labour's targets regime. The PM will make an important statement on how his Government will respond to what Robert Francis QC has uncovered. A big moment for the NHS and a big moment for Cameron's commitment to the NHS.