High Tory disdain for the party’s grassroots isn’t that new. It’s a tradition going back at least as far as the over-quoted observation by Arthur Balfour – an old Etonian like his present day successor as Prime Minister – that he would rather consult his valet than the Conservative Party Conference. Whoever depicted activists – or didn’t – as “swivel-eyed loons” was arguably not going that much further, if changes in linguistic fashion over the century are allowed for. Which simply underlines the point that the row’s significance is about more than whether the remark was made, and its obvious unwisdom if it was. It goes to the heart of the currently dysfunctional three-way relationship between Tory leader, party and public.
Certainly, the “loons” debacle helped to make last night’s vote on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill even more radioactive than it would otherwise have been. Of course, there is a significant minority of MPs, especially but not only in the Tory party, for whom opposition to the Bill is simply a function of – usually religious – conscience. But there are also many who know that gay marriage has increasingly become, along with Europe, a totemic source of disaffection in their constituency associations in a way that it isn’t among the wider public: a symbol of what they see as a largely metropolitan obsession.
Even if the MPs were all driven by their personal convictions that the Bill was an abomination, or that life should be made miserable for David Cameron, or both, they knew they had cover from local party associations. Far from condemning their disloyalty to the party leadership, as might have been done in times long past, those associations knew that Cameron would support them. It’s unlikely that without that activist momentum (partly fuelled by the competition from Ukip, of course) the rebels would have gone all out to defeat a Bill which was, for better or worse, an attempt by Cameron to reach beyond the Tories’ core vote to the younger centre ground, rather than simply register their opposition in the division lobbies.
Whatever the paper logic of the Tory ex-minister Tim Loughton’s amendment yesterday (seeking heterosexual civil partnerships), it was a patent attempt to lure the opposition into the lobbies with the Tory rebels, as Labour originally contemplated doing. When, as Home Secretary, David Blunkett ushered in such partnerships for gay couples, in order to give them the financial benefits of marriage, he took the perfectly reasonable view that heterosexual couples could enjoy the same benefits by getting married. If anything, the rebels have undermined the very institution of heterosexual marriage they so revere by offering the alternative of civil partnership. But whatever the merits or otherwise of heterosexual partnerships that wasn’t what the amendment was about. It was framed to wreck a Bill to which the Prime Minister had attached great significance.
Which makes it all the more tempting to compare the Tory party of 2013 with the 1980s Labour Party, when the activist base played a major part in driving the party away from the voters. Given that the polls show a majority in favour of gay marriage, as well as less than preoccupied with the EU, isn’t this a mirror image of Labour’s post-1979 nadir: the era of “no compromise with the electorate”. That, incidentally, was when the term “loony left” came into usage – including, on equally embarrassing occasions – by senior party officials.
There’s something in this; but the similarities shouldn’t blind us to the differences. First, there was virtually no sympathy for the hard left in the mainstream press, very much including the papers that wanted Labour to succeed. Today, the Tory rebels, including on gay marriage, enjoy significant support from within the traditionally pro-conservative press. Second, with the electorate focused on a range of social and economic anxieties post-crash, neither opposition to gay marriage, nor (for now at least and much as pro-Europeans may deplore the fact) hostility to the EU is as electorally toxic an issue as, say, Labour’s espousal of unilateral disarmament was then.
Third, the divisions have as much to do with the MPs themselves as with their activists. For all the fact that last night was formally a free vote, the charge that Cameron had “lost control” of his party applies almost as much to gay marriage as it did when Lord Howe was levelling it at the weekend over Europe. Indeed the scale of the rebellion last night makes it difficult to detect as big a gulf between the parliamentary party and the party activists as there was even during most of Labour's worst period.
The increasing assertiveness of the new parliamentary culture, reflected in the increasing power of select committees, may be one factor. Another is the seductive – but erroneous – belief among some MPs, especially those who won marginal constituencies flush with Lord Ashcroft’s money, that their electoral chances have nothing to do with the fortunes of their party leader.
A surprising aspect of last night’s vote is that Cameron took his (in many ways commendable) stand after a week of concessions to his dissenters – in many cases the same people – on the arguably more crucial issue of Europe. He is now under pressure –for example, from the Tory commentator Tim Montgomerie – to make even more such concessions like bringing the formidable Eurosceptic David Davis in to lead the preparations for post-election repatriation negotiations with Brussels. If he doesn’t want to look increasingly weak, or like he’s presiding over a divided party, he will need to say to the siren voices of the right that “enough is enough”.