The passing of the same-sex marriage bill earlier this week was hailed by its supporters as a revolutionary moment, but Cameron risked rebellion in his own party to pass the bill. So can he heal the rifts in his party?
For Conservative parliamentarian Sir Peter Bottomley of the Worthing West region of southern England, Tuesday's UK Parliament vote (05.02.2013) on same-sex marriage in the UK was both personal and political.
"I was taught by three people who were homosexual," Bottomley said in an interview with DW. "The one I knew to be homosexual, in his sixties, married a woman. The two I didn't know were homosexuals - one was murdered by a rent boy and the other spent thirty years in a monastery in the misery of knowing he had 'incurable homosexuality.' He was celibate."
When Bottomley rose to speak in the House of Commons on Tuesday, he framed his decision to vote in favor of the bill, along with 132 other Tories, firmly within the tradition of British Conservativism, one which decriminalized homosexuality in Britain in 1967. Around the same time, he explained, across the pond, the US Supreme Court declared Virginia's law against interracial marriage unconstitutional. "Those arguments are absurd now, and it is absurd that we are having this debate [about whether or not same sex partners can marry]," Bottomley said.
But not everyone in the party agrees with him. Bottomley's speech was prefaced by Sir Roger Gale's, a Conservative colleague of the North Thanet district in southeast England. "It is not possible to redefine marriage," Gale said. "Marriage is the union between a man and a woman. It has been that historically and it remains so. It is Alice in Wonderland territory - Orwellian almost - for any Government of any political persuasion to try to rewrite the lexicon." Gale was one of 139 Tories who voted against Cameron's same-sex marriage bill.
While Cameron is reassured that his legislation passed the House of Commons by an overall margin of 400 to 175, he must now reckon with what is being deemed a full-blown "rebellion" within his own party, and wonder whether this rift will be used by dissenters to institute a change of leader.
Rebellion or evolution?
"Going back in history, the idea of conservative party splits has great resonance with the population," Tim Knox, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies, a center-right think thank based in London, told DW. "Ever since 1989 [when Margaret Thatcher stepped down and John Major took over] there have been talk of Tory splits. This will reinforce an existing preconception," he said, and presumably could indicate the potential for another change in leader.
There is definitely room for concern about the Conservative party's prospects, says Stephan Shakespeare, founder and CEO of Yougov, a market research firm, and a regular contributor to the influential Conservative Home website. "[The split] is certainly the highest that it's been in a very long time," he told DW. "And the perception of a party divided is an impression that lasts. So this divided party does create a long-term problem."
According to Yougov's own research, 71 percent of Britons now view the Tory party as "divided." Shakespeare says that number is the highest it has been in a very long time.
Tim Knox adds that the damage done to the Tory party as a result of the same-sex marriage vote was largely self-inflicted. "It was creating a fight for the sake of a fight," Knox said. "It's a reckless thing to do when support from party management, his own MPs and his own constituency is incredibly weak. At a time of great economic difficulties in Britain, this seems to be bizarre."
The timing of the same-sex marriage legislation was also questioned on the floor of parliament. "Will the Minister explain why the Government are bringing this Bill forward now...?" asked Nigel Dodds of Belfast North. "Is not the truth of the matter that this is about low political calculation and detoxifying the Tory brand rather than anything to do with principle?"
Bottomley has represented his borough in parliament since 1997
What, then, were Cameron's motivations in bringing the legislation forward now?
"He believes the conservative party is seen by the electorate as old-fashioned and not embracing progressive ideas," said Stephan Shakespeare of Yougov. "And he's probably right there. He also believes that the public is more progressive than the conservative party, and he may not be quite so right there."
Tim Knox shares Mr. Shakespeare's mixed blessing of the decision. "From [Cameron's] perspective it shows that he is modernizing the party and decontaminating the conservative party ground. He's showing that he's in tune with modern Britain. Whether or not this is true or not is another matter."
Both men - and the UK public at large - are very much aware of a recent campaign by The Coalition for Marriage, an organization that gathered 635,000 signatures in the UK in support of "traditional" marriage between a man and a woman.
Yet Cameron's view may yet be in tune with modern Britain after all. According to the speech of British Labour Party parliamentarian Yvonne Cooper, two-thirds of British citizens support same-sex marriage. For those under the age of 50, that number is 80 percent.
Those numbers may rise. "In 2004 Britain allowed civil partnerships," Sir Peter Bottomley told DW. "About 40 percent at that time weren't really in favor. Neither for nor against. Two years later that 40 percent had fallen to 10 percent."
That said, Bottomley shies away from too much number-crunching. "I am absolutely completely convinced that [Cameron] hasn't done this as part of a political calculation," Bottomley said."He's doing this because it's right."
In the years leading up to elections in 2015, David Cameron will have some work to do to ensure cohesion within his party and manage perceptions of Conservative unity. Social issues such as gay marriage may soon take second-stage.
"I think the thing now is to be very disciplined about sticking to the issues that matter to people," Shakespeare said. "And they of course are questions of the economy and public services."
Tim Knox sees an even more limited focus. "I would concentrate everything on a bold reform to unleash economic growth. That's the only thing that he should be doing."
"It's the economy that will decide the elections," Knox said.
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