David Cameron's attempt to use his party's conference to show that the Conservatives are not "retoxifying" was dramatically thrown off course yesterday when Jeremy Hunt called for the abortion limit to be halved to 12 weeks.
The Health Secretary, appointed last month, provoked controversy by saying there was a "fundamental moral issue" in wanting the limit reduced so radically, comparing it to the death penalty as an issue that "cuts across morality".
Mr Hunt was slapped down by the Prime Minister, who insisted there were no plans for the Government to change the limit and that the minister was expressing a "personal view". But the difference of opinion again raised questions over why Mr Cameron promoted him in last month's reshuffle, given that the topic of abortion is so sensitive for any Health Secretary.
In an interview with The Times, Mr Hunt said: "I voted to reduce the time to 12 weeks. I still have that view. There's an incredibly difficult question about the moment we should deem life to start.
"There are some issues that cut across health and morality, a bit like capital punishment does for crime. There are all sorts of arguments in terms of deterrence and justice, but also there is a fundamental moral issue that sits behind it … You can be a strong feminist and have a view one way or the other on abortion."
The controversy showed how Mr Hunt, who while Culture Secretary was accused of misleading Parliament over his dealings with BSkyB and Rupert Murdoch, has become a lightning conductor for the Prime Minister. Mr Cameron is desperate to show voters who have deserted the Tories since the 2010 election that he has broad mainstream appeal, after Ed Miliband's well-regarded speech to the Labour conference last week. But the PM's decision to reward Mr Hunt with promotion has prompted questions over his judgement. Mr Hunt's position on abortion was well known: he voted for a 12-week limit in a Commons vote on 2008.
It is understood that Downing Street planned for Mr Hunt to do the interview with The Times as one of a number of cabinet ministers suggested to the press to prepare the ground for conference. The failure to anticipate Mr Hunt provoking a row over abortion raised further questions over No 10's competence.
The controversy involving Mr Hunt follows Andrew Mitchell's alleged "pleb" comments to a Downing Street police officer, which have caused the Chief Whip to stay away from the Tory conference. MPs on the left of the party are alarmed that the reshuffle saw prominent right-wingers such as Chris Grayling given high-profile jobs, while Cameroon modernisers, such as Nick Herbert, left government.
The PM, who is in favour of an abortion limit of between 20 and 22 weeks, said yesterday: "He [Mr Hunt] is a Member of Parliament, he is absolutely entitled to hold an individual view, a view of conscience and on this issue all Members of Parliament – Prime Ministers, Health Secretaries, everybody – has to vote according to their consciences.
"People need to know the Government has got no plans to bring forward any legislation in this area and any vote that does happen will be a free vote. I personally have voted for a modest reduction from the current limit of 24 weeks because I think there are some medical arguments for that. But I don't agree with the 12-week limit, and that's not the Government's policy."
In Birmingham this week, Mr Cameron will rebuff the Labour leader's attempt to steal the "One Nation" mantle from the Tories. He is expected to tell conference that it is "impressive" that Mr Miliband spoke for 70 minutes without notes and not say anything meaningful.
But the Prime Minister has been urged by MPs from both the left and the right of his party to change political course. Right-wingers, including Liam Fox and David Davis, have demanded a referendum on the EU, while those on the left want him to revive the pro-green, Big Society agenda that marked the early years of his leadership.
The leading right-wing commentator Charles Moore wrote yesterday that Mr Cameron had been "hit by a hurricane" and needed to reassert his authority.
The abortion row is particularly toxic for Mr Cameron as it risks alienating female voters, who are starting to drift to Labour in protest at the Government's hardline austerity agenda. Mr Hunt has been a figure of controversy since the revelation to the Leveson inquiry earlier this year that his office was giving inside information to Mr Murdoch's News Corporation over the handling of the BSkyB takeover.
Mr Cameron wanted to keep Mr Hunt in the Cabinet because he was seen as an effective communicator who would bring "bedside manner" to the job of Health Secretary. Yet, instead of telling The Times that there was no change in government policy on abortion, he launched into a three-sentence defence of his stance on a 12-week limit, triggering controversy. He also compared his treatment during the Leveson hearings to "being accused of a murder that you didn't commit".
Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary and shadow minister for women and equalities, said: "Time and again, David Cameron's ministers reveal how little they think about the reality of women's lives. Be it financial changes that hit women twice as hard as men or the handling of the reshuffle, David Cameron clearly has a blind spot over women."
Darinka Aleksic, campaign co-ordinator at Abortion Rights said: "The fact that one of Jeremy Hunt's first statements as Health Secretary is to call for further restrictions to abortion access is an absolute disgrace.
"If Jeremy Hunt had actually studied the evidence, as he claims, he would know that there is no scientific basis for reducing the abortion time limit. The main UK medical bodies all support the current 24-week limit."
Law that fell into line with science
1967 Abortion Act passed. Introduced by David Steele MP as a private member's bill, it seta limit of 28 weeks for terminating a pregnancy.
1968 The Act came into force in April, operative in England, Wales and Scotland only; it does not extend to Northern Ireland.
1990 The Act was amended after the Human Embryology and Human Fertilisation Act 1990 came into effect. The legal time limit was lowered from 28 to 24 weeks, acknowledging medical advances that meant a foetus was viable by that stage. It also spelled out the specific circumstances (eg, where a woman's health is at grave risk) that would allow for abortions later than 24 weeks.
2008 MPs were asked to vote on whether the limit should be cut. There were votes on amendments advocating reductions to 22, 20, 16 and even 12 weeks. However, the majority of MPs voted to reject the changes. The House decided to keep the law as it is.
Abortion: Where they stand
Supports reducing the upper time limit to 20 or 22 weeks, but has no plans to change the law.
"We do need to review the abortion limit. I think that the way medical science and technology have developed in the past few decades does mean that an upper limit of 20 or 22 weeks would be sensible." April 2010
Wants to halve limit to 12 weeks.
"My own view is that 12 weeks is the right point for it. It's that incredibly difficult question about the moment that we deem life starts." October 2012
Reduce limit to 20 weeks.
"I think there is scope for some reduction, probably to 20 weeks." October 2012
Chancellor of the Exchequer
Retain the 24-week limit.
"I am a social liberal, but I do approach these issues on their merits." September 2008
Leader of the Commons, former health secretary
Reduce limit to 22 weeks.
"I would argue personally that the evidence would support a further reduction to ensure a prospective legal framework that could accommodate improving medical science." May 2008
Reduce limit to 20 weeks.
"What we are trying to do here is … reflect the way medical science has moved on." October 2012
Tory MP, former nurse
Reduce limit to 20 weeks.
"The public have been informed by the images of how a foetus develops, the knowledge that foetuses feel pain earlier [and] the knowledge of what happens in a late termination." May 2008
Shadow health secretary
Voted for no change in May 2008.
"I feel increasingly at odds with today's unforgiving Catholic church. Life is not as black and white as they seem to see it." October 2012