Leading article: History lesson

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The Independent Online

David Cameron is allowing his MPs a free vote on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill presently before the Commons, but the Tory party's response to the Bill is nevertheless proving a revealing indicator of the direction of his leadership. Andrew Lansley, the Opposition health spokesman, said this week that lesbian couples should be blocked from receiving IVF treatment unless they can show a "male role model" will be involved in the upbringing of the child .

Mr Lansley also said this week that, while he is in favour of removing the requirement for the approval of two doctors for a termination, he will vote in favour of lowering the time limit for an abortion to 22 weeks. Such a stance by a prominent member of the Shadow Cabinet is significant. It suggests that the Tory MP Nadine Dorries, who is leading the campaign to bring down the time limit, is acting with her party leadership's tacit support.

These signs of social illiberalism chime with the message being propagated by the party in other areas. Mr Cameron and his spokesmen have given the impression at times that the primary cause of poverty in Britain is family breakdown. Across the political spectrum it is accepted that the family is a stabilising institution in society. But focusing on this factor to the exclusion of others is dangerous.

Three successive Conservative leaders before Mr Cameron began their tenure promising to appeal to the liberal centre. All three steadily drifted to the right before meeting with disaster. As encouraging as the political terms of trade at present look for Mr Cameron, he should be mindful of the lessons of his party's recent history.