No political party should alter a bedrock institution without the following conditions applying - especially if it is the Conservative Party. A sizeable campaign to change that institution should be in place: in other words, there should be real evidence of public pressure. The Party should then discuss and debate the matter internally. If the Party then decides on change, if should say so unambiguously in its general election manifesto. If it doesn't win the election, but enters into Coalition, any commitment to effect that change should be written into the consequent Coalition Agreement. Ideally, any bill enacting the change should be preceded by a Green Paper in which any problematic consequences of the bill could be aired, and solutions thereby sought. Such solutions could then be written into the bill, or tacked on to it by amendments. Finally, the bill should be subject to a geniunely free vote.
Not a single one of these conditions apply to the same-sex marriage bill, on which MPs will vote this evening.
No campaign for same-sex marriage preceded the bill. (Although Stonewall has consistently favoured same-sex marriage, it didn't launch a big campaign for it - at least partly because it thought the Government wouldn't concede it.) There was no discussion within the Conservative Party, especially at local level. There was no manifesto commitment. There was no Coalition Agreement undertaking. There was no Green Paper. There have been no significant amendments - other than Labour's on equal civil partnerships. And there has been no free vote, at least at when it comes to members of the Executive: it has been made very clear to Ministers which lobby the Prime Minister wants them to go into. For these reasons alone, Tory backbenchers should vote against the bill at Third Reading this evening. The way in which it has been introduced and championed has broken every rule of good government and party management.
The Loongate row is still reverberating in the Party, especially at local Association level. The key point about it is that too many Conservatives, from the Cabinet table to the grassroots, believe that the controversial words are what is thought and said of them in Downing Street. No measure has done more to buttress that impression than the same-sex marriage bill - which has been imposed on the Party with such absolutism, and which is the cause of such a bitter culture war. Many older people especially see the measure as a deliberate assault on their values: the bill might thus almost have been designed as a recruiting-sergeant for UKIP. For this reason alone, Tory MPs should vote against the bill this evening in good heart. They will certainly grasp that Ministers haven't a clue what the courts will do when they get to work on Equality Act challenges, and that the bill is consequently a threat to religious freedom.
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Even now, despite the economic difficulties, the Tories are still preferred to Labour on questions of economic competence. That's before any economic recovery.
More people blame the last Labour government for the deficit than blame the Coalition.
Cameron beats Ed Miliband on nearly every measure of what it takes to be Prime Minister.
Ed Miliband is not seen as a PM-in-waiting. His ratings have hardly improved since he was first elected Labour leader.
On welfare and immigration Labour is still out of touch with voters - not least in its own heartland constituencies.
Whether in London against Boris or in Scotland against Alex Salmond, Labour is struggling to win the big match ups.
Labour is refusing to give the people a referendum on Europe.
Reasons like those listed above should give Tory members hope. The next election is far from lost. It's not going to be easy for reasons that ConHome has warned about for a long time... but victory is possible. A precondition, however, is party unity and in today's Times (£) I set out two ways of achieving unity.
This weekend of the “mad, swivel-eyed loons” row will swiftly be followed by Commons debate on the same-sex marriage bill. Will Conservative MPs accept Lord Feldman's denial, view the incident as yet another instance of media irresponsbility, and look more sympathetically on the measure - on which David Cameron has staked part of his political reputation? Or will the report only harden the opposition to it - since some will conclude, regardless of what they think of Lord Feldman's denial, that his words represent what Downing Street thinks anyway?
The answer will become clear over the next few days. What is evident this morning, however, is that what Cabinet Ministers do and say about the bill will be watched very closely indeed. The Sunday Telegraph confirms that Chris Grayling will support amendments that aim to protect people who work in the public sector and believe that marriage is between men and women - and that Owen Paterson and David Jones will oppose the bill at Third Reading. The logical extension of Philip Hammond's pointed remarks on Question Time last week is that he should, too.
Andrew Feldman has issued a statement as follows: "There is speculation on the internet and on Twitter that the senior Conservative Party figure claimed to have made derogatory comments by the Times and the Telegraph is me. This is completely untrue. I would like to make it quite clear that I did not, nor have ever described our associations in this way or in any similar manner. I am taking legal advice."
The question that obviously follows is whether some other person with "strong social connections to the Prime Minister and close links to the party machine", as the Times (£) put it this morning, spoke the contested words. This seems not to be the case, and Lord Feldman's statement confirms that he is indeed the man at the centre of this controversy. I understand that a conversation between him and several lobby journalists took place at a dinner earlier this week.
There are activists in every Party whose eyes aren't entirely steady in their sockets. And swivel eyes, to mangle a metaphor, cut both ways - see here. But most Conservative members are normal enough. Tory activists are not untypical of the class which, if one takes a romantic view, has been the backbone of England for centuries - and, even if one takes a prosaic one, works (largely in the private sector), earns, provides, saves, and gives generously to charity. A high proportion of the members I know are involved in their local communities: indeed, they are the Big Society. But Tory members have undergone one significant change in the last 25 years or so. They are, on the whole, older people. The Conservative Party has been hit hard by the hollowing-out of conventional politics.
The response of the Party leadership, since 2005, could have been to strive for new members - or, alternatively, to abandon the concept of membership, and seek to build a new movement based on overlapping interest groups. Its view of what to do about declining membership has ebbed and flowed as Party Chairmen have come and gone, but one big point is clear. People who join political parties want to have a say in them - or at least a sense of ownership. At a national level, party members have no more say than when David Cameron became leader. And at a local level, they have less: the power of local members to select their own Parliamentary candidates has been diminished by the vogue for primaries. Membership costs £25 a year: no small sum. Payment is followed by a steady stream of letters and e-mails asking for more.
CCHQ and Downing Street (when the Party is in office) has massive power over local Associations which is sometimes arbitrarily wielded: if you doubt it, read Mark Wallace on this site this week on the subject of the present Euro-selections. In short, the Conservative Party is trapped in a spiral of failure as far as membership is concerned. The smaller the membership becomes, the less its leadership trusts it - and the less its leadership trusts it, the smaller its membership becomes. (Meanwhile, UKIP membership rises.) But it doesn't follow that because it's small, it has no influence all - it does, albeit in a very narrow compass. MPs are reliant on their local Associations for support in tough political times - and sometimes fellowship, too. That's why so many of them voted for the Baron Euro-amendment in the Commons this week.
This is the event that triggered the observations on the rotation frequency of actvists' eyeballs by a "member of the inner circle" with "strong social connections to the Prime Minister and close links to the party machine". But if the party on the ground is not in a good way, whose fault is that? Doesn't it lie as much with David Cameron - to whom this person is apparently close - as with activists who have often worked hard for the Party for many years, and will still be working hard when the present leadership has moved on? Since there are few "members of the Prime Minister's inner circle" with "social connections" to him and "close links to the pary machine", I imagine that the secret will probably be out by Monday. I refrain from guessing only because my inkling may be wrong. But I wonder if the position of this mystery man will become untenable.
They divide a third, a third, and a third in our latest survey, issued last Friday morning, about whether to treat UKIP as a friend or enemy when the general election comes in 2015.
The question was
Asked if they believed that such a pact will be formed for 2015, 10% of Tory member respondents said Yes, 53% said No and 37% said that the leadership will wait and see.
Understandably, the leadership's position is that there should be no pact with UKIP (or anyone else). So only a third of members are lined up behind it.
To write that this evidence suggests that there's a big gap between Downing Street's views and those of Party members would be an understatment.
Daniel Hannan has long urged a pact. So recently has Michael Fabricant. I'm opposed to one, though I've suggested a new "safe space" in which both parties' activists could meet.
Just under 1850 people responded to the survey, of whom over 800 were Conservative Party members. The figures above are taken from the latter's views.
The next general election will not be concentrated in the counties, but it will decide the government. For this reason, voters will return to the two major parties, the Conservatives and Labour, one of which must lead in forming an administration, if not win outright. Turnout will rise, UKIP's share of the vote will fall, and the best course that David Cameron can take, in the meanwhile, is to hold his nerve, build on his recent conference speeches, and promote a strong, mainstream, sensible programme, for government and for the future. In short, no single, silver bullet will slay the Farage werewolf.
Such a programme would be a conservatism for Bolton West, as I've put it: reducing net immigration, tackling welfare dependency, holding fuel and electricity bills down, showing leadership at home by bringing the deficit down further, boosting job security and helping to keep mortgage rates low. All this is the conventional wisdom, and it's true as far as it goes. I started to look at UKIP and what drives its vote relatively early, and noted that EU policy is not the main factor: immigration and crime are bigger factors. Above all, UKIP's support is driven not so much by ideas as by anger - by the urge to put two fingers up to the entire political class.
By Paul Goodman
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David Cameron's well-judged tribute to Margaret Thatcher won't make the coming days any less difficult for him. For although he will have a certain ceremonial position during the coming week, and a certain status as the leader of the party she once herself led, he also has certain difficulty: namely, that he is dwarved by her giant shadow. This would be true of any imaginable Conservative leader. But it is accentuated by a single fact. She won three elections. He hasn't - yet - won one, and it may never happen.
However, the Prime Minister's problem with Mrs Thatcher, as I will always of her from her great days, is less than the Conservative Party's. Very simply, it has yet to come to terms with living in that shadow, either, or fully recognising that the age of Thatcher - like the lady herself now, alas - is dead. It must seek to value what she handed on, like some precious family heirloom, while recognising that families themselves change over the generations. And it has not yet fully recovered from the wound in the family made by the coup that overthrew her.
Perhaps this will change with her death, immensely sad as it is. Writing on ConservativeHome this morning, Owen Paterson becomes the second Cabinet Minister, after George Osborne, to offer his own tribute - and suggests how her inheritance can, to use a very Thatcherite figure of speech, be invested and made profitable. How right he is to look forward to a happier future for our party than the past it has endured since she left office. It is one for which Cameron himself, amidst the tensions of Coalition, must himself struggle.
By Paul Goodman
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The intention had always been that, at some point mid-Parliament, these committees would "go live" - in other words, start receiving submissions about what should be in the next manifesto. Next, those committees will consider what they've received. And finally, they will draw up manifesto recommendations, which will be presented to Oliver Letwin (or someone else, if Letwin's not in charge of the manifesto at that point). There are five of these backbench policy committees, and the subject areas they cover are divided up as follows:
The Economy: John Redwood.
Home Affairs and the Constitution: Eleanor Laing.
Public Services: Steve Baker.
Foreign Affairs: Edward Leigh.
The Environment and Local Government: Neil Parish.
Tim Montgomerie recommended the '22 raise money and fund its own policy unit. Senior figures on the committee felt that to so would be like creating a party within a party, and thus didn't. However you feel about the matter, it highlights the unusual nature of the next manifesto process. Because the party is in coalition, it can't rely on the Downing Street policy unit (which in any event is largely staffed by civil servants: a mistake). The '22 groups will thus be short of staff to back up their work, which helps to explain why some are talking to think-tanks.
I gather that the Centre for Policy Studies and Civitas are among those showing an interest, and that some of the '22 groups have begun talking to senior party members about drawing on the views and talents of the voluntary party. This raises the question of how the groups will dovetail with the Conservative Policy Forum, which is already doing its own policy work on the next manifesto. ConservativeHome work on its own Strong and Compassionate manifesto project continues.
By Tim Montgomerie
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Some think that newspapers don't matter much anymore. One of those people was once David Cameron. He was elected Tory leader without the support of a single traditional centre right newspaper. He stormed to victory over David Davis because TV's Tom Bradby and Nick Robinson - the long-serving political editors of ITN and the BBC - gave his 2005 speech to the Blackpool Conference such heady write ups. Number 10 do not disregard the press quite so much today. They still think broadcast is dominant but they know that newspapers have played an important part in creating discontent on the Right of politics. They've also understood that the newspapers are an important part of the media food chain. Broadcast journalists often take their lead from newspaper investigative reporting, exclusives and columnists. Readership of newspapers is declining but it's also changing. Some newspapers are investing heavily in digital and hope to prosper in a coming age when it will be hard to distinguish between the TV in your sitting room and the portable communications device in your ruck sack. In this age it will be hard to distinguish between a newspaper and broadcaster.
That, however, is for the future (albeit not-so-distant). The immediate future as far as Cameron is concerned is 2015. An endorsement from the five traditional centre-right-ish daily newspapers on the eve of election day would be useful but what he really needs them to do is to change gear soon, if not now. He needs them to stop attacking his administration over the next 18 to 24 months and start attacking Ed Miliband.
Looking back over the last few days Fleet Street has provided him with mixed signals. The newspapers have certainly increased their attacks on Labour. The Mail - after likening George Osborne to Margaret Thatcher- has unleashed both Max Hastings and Simon Heffer against Ed Miliband since Wednesday. Today's Times (£) has questioned whether Ed Miliband has any kind of economic plan. The Sun has noted the unpopularity of Ed Balls. The Express has, perhaps, been most positive of them all, choosing "Cheers! Budget Boost For Millions" as its Thursday frontpage. Overall, however, the newspapers remain suspicious of Cameron - and in the week that he largely surrendered on Leveson you can easily understand why. The Mail has ran repeated hard-hitting stories on what it sees as the Coalition's unfair policies towards stay-at-home parents. The Telegraph has run four successive front page stories worrying about the childcare policy, a "housing boom", the Coalition's "war on the countryside" and, today, further cuts to the police and armed forces (see side image).