Steve Richards: Gay marriage is Cameron and Osborne's badge of modernity

The term "modernisation" is the most over-used and least precise term in British politics. The imprecision of the term is of course why it is deployed so extensively. An evasive concept with a hint of dynamic intent makes it highly attractive for leaders.

Most days of the week I still read that David Cameron and George Osborne are "modernisers". The description shows how flexible the term has become. On most policy areas continuity with the Thatcher era is much more marked. There is little evidence to suggest a break with the party's recent past, which is presumably what modernisation means if it's to mean anything at all.

Yet the duo seems determined to push forward with gay marriage. In relation to this policy they are "modern". Or perhaps it would be more accurate to suggest that their recent Thatcherite predecessors from the 1980s were less coherent in their view of the state. Many of them in that decade were advocates of economic liberalism while being socially conservative. On one level Cameron/Osborne's support for gay marriage and their 1980s support for a smaller state come together more consistently. They are economic and social liberals.

Although his recent biographer, Janan Ganesh, portrays Osborne as a flexible pragmatist, I look at Osborne's policies and speeches and place him closer to the right wing libertarian end of politics, a surprisingly crowded corner of the political spectrum.

In his conference speech a couple of months ago, Osborne felt obliged to say he was not a libertarian, which suggests that he recognised he could be taken for one. As part of his small-state philosophy, the Chancellor is a long-time social liberal. Cameron is a more conventional Conservative who has learnt his way rather slowly towards social liberalism. When he was a Conservative MP, before he became Speaker of the Commons, John Bercow, used to have the occasional conversation with Cameron about the importance of pro-gay reforms and got only dismissive responses. Cameron puts the case now in a slightly more orthodox way by referring to his support for marriage as an institution.

But this does not explain fully why Cameron and Osborne now advance the cause with such determination. On gay marriage they face the wrath of a number of Conservative MPs, of sections of the Daily Telegraph, and of a former Archbishop of Canterbury – a formidable combination. In the midst of much economic gloom, and a restlessness over Europe, why is this particular duo acting now on this particular issue?

No doubt they partly do so out of conviction. But their stance reminds me of Tony Blair's approach to law-and-order issues, including his support for locking up suspects for 90 days without charge. I support gay marriage and was opposed to the crazed 90 days without charge, but in both cases it is too easy to detect very crude political calculations merging with principled belief.

I am sure Blair almost believed in locking up suspects without charge for 90 days but his view was sharpened by the knowledge the policy was popular. In the case of Cameron, Osborne and gay marriage we have evidence of simplistic political calculation. In the recent article for The Times in which the Chancellor generously outlined his strategy for the next election, the strategic importance of gay marriage was extensively highlighted. As he reflected on President Obama's recent election victory, Osborne noted that: "His high-profile endorsement of equal marriage for gay couples also enthused younger voters…. polls found that a majority of all Americans supported him on the issue."

The Chancellor then moved on to the situation in the UK: "It is worth reflecting that in Britain, as in America, a clear majority of the public support gay marriage, and an even bigger majority of women support it. That majority support is just as high in the North as it is the South, and it is equally high among all socio-economic groups".

Evidently Osborne hopes that support for the policy will soften the perception of the Conservative leadership – among women voters in particular. And he must hope that his stance will attract the approval of other voters from all regions and classes. As they embark on a whole range of ill thought through and, in some cases, outdated reforms, the Tory leadership has with this policy a shield marked "modern" – taking on some crusty old party members, archbishops and the Telegraph. In theory at least the dynamic works well for them.

If the party is divided over the issue, so be it. Europe is far more lethal because it is a long-running saga with no end in sight. Gay marriage ceases to be divisive once the legislation is passed. If it fails, Cameron and Osborne will have been seen to do their best.

Politics is multi-layered. This is not solely about softening the image of a still right-wing party. Cameron and Osborne deserve credit for seeking to implement a policy that is above all about equal rights. Plenty of gay couples are at least as stable as some married ones. The ban on marriage suggests that their relationships are somehow less valid when they are so obviously as strong – or as fragile – fragile as any other.

The change would be a civilizing advance and on one level a rather remarkable one. When John Major was Prime Minister it was seen as hugely significant that he was willing to meet the gay actor Ian McKellen in No 10. Two decades later, the next Tory PM seeks to legalise gay marriages – a huge leap. As a bonus, the reform should be implemented relatively smoothly. There is a big, natural majority in the Commons. Those Lords who dissent can only huff and puff for a limited time.

Yet I have doubts as to whether the journey will be smooth. When Cameron and Osborne act partly for crude strategic reasons the sequence tends to go badly wrong and they are forced to change tack. To a more limited extent the same applied to Blair. Look what happened when he mingled conviction with what was transparently positioning. His 90 days got nowhere.

I hope I am wrong on this, but Osborne should not have been quite so candid as to why his party might benefit electorally if it is associated with gay marriage. That is not why this small but important change should be implemented.