British politics in turmoil over Tory civil war

Mainstream opinion? This protester is against equal marriage rights for gay couples © Getty Images

Tory MPs, fresh from a fight with their leader over Britain’s EU membership, are voting against measures to allow same-sex couples to marry. Destructive or principled?

‘It’s the final straw!’ said one Conservative Party activist. He was announcing his intention to defect to the United Kingdom Independence Party after newspaper reports at the weekend claimed one of David Cameron’s closest lieutenants had condemned rank-and-file Tories as ‘swivel-eyed loons.’

But this deeply offended chairman of a Conservative Association in suburban South London was more than happy, on national television, to list the other issues which had pushed him into the arms of Nigel Farage. There was Europe, on which he and his local members held much more radical ‘outist’ views than the Prime Minister, and his wish for lower taxes and tougher law and order policies. But the grassroots also felt that Cameron was not being true to Conservative values by promoting a law to allow gay couples to marry.

Only a few days ago over 100 Conservative MPs voted to criticise the Queen’s Speech, the Government’s own plans, for failing to promise a referendum on leaving the EU. And this week Cameron’s restive backbenchers are preparing – and with some enthusiasm – to defy him again on the gay marriage issue.

One Conservative commentator lamented the ‘frenzied attacks from all sides’ while others speculated over whether the Prime Minister was losing control of his own party. Meanwhile, academic experts on parliament released a report showing that there have been more rebellions by MPs who should be expected to vote with the Government since the Coalition was formed in 2010 than at any time since the Second World War.

Because all parties are allowing a free vote on gay marriage, Mr Cameron’s team can argue this week has not been a direct blow against his authority. But it forms part of a pattern that pits the beliefs of his MPs against his decisions on how to lead the Coalition and the country.

Rebels with a cause?

The party is ‘in uproar and furious because it doesn’t feel listened to,’ said one unhappy MP yesterday.

Aha! say Cameron loyalists and Conservative opponents alike: the vote to disrupt gay marriage legislation is, at root, an expression of longstanding disgruntlement among traditionalists, who cannot face the compromises necessary to govern for the whole nation. If the opinion polls show that the Prime Minister is more in tune with public opinion than his party members, he has a duty to override them.

Not so, the rebels retort. Whether on Europe or gay marriage, these rebellions are skirmishes in a critical battle for the soul of the Conservative party, not to mention the future character of British society. To be bound by loyalty to a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ leader would be betraying not just their own individual consciences but also the history of a great political movement.

You Decide

  1. Which is worse: a divided political party, or MPs voting against their own beliefs?
  2. Should the political parties be giving MPs a free vote on this issue?

Activities

  1. Write a letter from David Cameron to his own rebel MPs that might ensure their future loyalty. Do you give ground or defend your own strategy?
  2. Research the issues traditionally treated in the world of politics as matters of conscience. Would you add any others?

Some People Say...

“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’ Edmund Burke”

What do you think?

Q & A

So what is behind this record-breaking fashion for defiance?
Experts say coalition has undoubtedly led to more rebellions. Either the Conservative side or the Lib Dems sometimes feels its own priorities, policies or principles sidelined or contradicted. But most of the serial rebels are on the Tory side of the partnership. Partly they resent their leader for not winning an outright majority, and suspect his judgement and strategy. But they also genuinely disagree with decisions their leader claims are in tune with modern Britain.
And what are the lessons for the rest of us?
Well, almost everyone is part of a team at some point. Each of us must decide for ourselves how we balance the need for loyalty to a boss, and team spirit, with our own ideas and priorities.

Word Watch

Activist
A person who actively campaigns for a particular party or advocacy group, or for a cause. The word distinguishes these campaigners from members, who do no more than remain inside a group, or supporters, who provide money and/or votes.
Defect
When someone changes their allegiance as a member or representative for one political party to another, it is commonly known as a defection.
Nigel Farage
The leader of the UKIP has appealed for Conservatives who are feeling unhappy with David Cameron’s leadership to join him. This is happening already: Since the 1990s Tory membership has fallen from about half a million to an estimated 130,000-170,000, although the party does not give an up-to-date aggregate number for its membership. Now many thousands of them are becoming members or supporters of UKIP.
Free vote
When the party leadership considers an issue being decided by parliament is one on which each member’s conscience should decide their view, they are not required to vote in a bloc, but are offered ‘a free vote’. This does not prevent opponents challenging them on their voting record, however.

Subjects

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