This weekend of the “mad, swivel-eyed loons” row will swiftly be followed by Commons debate on the same-sex marriage bill. Will Conservative MPs accept Lord Feldman's denial, view the incident as yet another instance of media irresponsbility, and look more sympathetically on the measure – on which David Cameron has staked part of his political reputation? Or will the report only harden the opposition to it – since some will conclude, regardless of what they think of Lord Feldman's denial, that his words represent what Downing Street thinks anyway?
The answer will become clear over the next few days. What is evident this morning, however, is that what Cabinet Ministers do and say about the bill will be watched very closely indeed. The Sunday Telegraph confirms that Chris Grayling will support amendments that aim to protect people who
work in the public sector and believe that marriage is between men and
women – and that Owen Paterson and David Jones will oppose the bill at Third Reading. The logical extension of Philip Hammond's pointed remarks on Question Time last week is that he should, too.
The Defence Secretary was abroad at the time of the Second Reading vote, but his opposition to the measure is long-standing. Amidst the present fragile atmosphere, his criticism of the political priority given to the bill, coupled with his view last weekend that he would vote to leave the EU were a referendum held now, has been read by some as a sign that he is "on manoevres" – in other words, positioning himself for a leadership bid. Today, William Hague has been sent out to the Sunday Telegraph to seek to pull Hammond and Michael Gove into line.
The key problem with the loons claim, as I point out in the Mail on Sunday today, is that many Tories think it's what Downing Street thinks. Three very senior Ministers and made it clear to me yesterday that they believe Number 10 has a very low view of Party activists. James Forsyth suggests in the same paper today that David Cameron should write to each Association Chairman to say what a good job he or she is doing – and how much their work is valued. Lord Feldman should certainly ring each one over the next few days to make it clear that this is his view.