By: John Charles Dyer, UK Correspondent
8 Feb 2013. Conservative Party Unity slips along a definable fault line.
The Cookie Crumbles
What's in a Marriage?
After a 6 hour debate the House of Commons approved gay marriage on a vote of 400 to 175. This overwhelming overall majority could nevertheless not disguise the major fault opening up beneath the feet of the Conservative Party. Prime Minister David Cameron championed the policy but over half his Conservative MPs either voted against the bill or abstained.
The Referendum in the bushes
The Prime Minister’s loss of face on Gay Marriage was even more numerically significant than his earlier 25 October 2011 loss of face over Britain’s relationship to the European Union, considered at the time politically significant. Since that time the Prime Minister has scrambled in one measure after another to look tough on Europe as more and more of the Conservative base switched to UKIP.
The Conservative Party hasn’t yet recovered in the polls from the steady erosion of its base to UKIP, although it received a transient bounce following the Prime Minister’s highly publicized and long awaited speech on his position on the European Union in which he promised would institute an “in and out” referendum on British involvement in the European Union. The temporary nature of the bounce is no surprise. As pointed out by the Independent, polls suggest Europe is an issue of priority for only 6% of the electorate. For those for whom it is important, the Prime Minister’s contingent promise to conduct a referendum in 2017 if elected and only after he has negotiated as yet to be negotiated “repatriation of powers” from Europe was hardly inspiring coming from the man who claimed the NHS and the strength of National Defence were safe in his hands. By 3 Feb one respected poll had Conservatives the furthest behind Labour at 15 percent. The next poll showed 11 percent but the actual is more likely between 11 percent and 15 percent than 11 percent.
Meanwhile, 8 Feb a Prime Minister now painted into a corner struggled to deliver "a victory" on his ultimatum demanding cuts to the EU budget. After intensive negotiations the Prime Minister claimed victory. But the deal capped the EU budget not cut British contributions as deeply as the Prime Minister sought. At an afternoon press conference the Prime Minister was challenged to explain how Britain's contribution "not rising as much as expected" is the cut he promised. Also the EU Parliament must approve. Early indications are that may be difficult.
Other blows have gone a little less noticed but are no less real.
Leveson taken from Prime Minister's hands
The House of Lords, frustrated by the pace of progress in the Prime Minister’s implementation of Leveson, voted 272 to 141 in favour of an amendment to the Defamation Bill before it. The amendment would implement a key feature of Lord Leveson’s report, the establishment of a low cost arbitration service for ordinary citizens who feel they have been defamed by the media. It was the second biggest defeat for the government in the House of Lords since 2010. Conservative rebels included some major Tory heavy hitters, including former lord chancellor Lord Mackay, Lord Ashcroft, and former foreign secretary Lord Hurd.
The not so electric eletrification of the ring fence
On 21 December the Tyrie special Commission on Banking Standards, prompted by the LIBOR scandal, issued its report. The Commission, headed by serious Conservative figures, criticized the government’s planned banking standards as not enough, not fast enough. They argued the government’s “ring fence” proposals needed to be “electrified” (IE, given teeth if banks tried to finesse the ring fence). Chancellor Osborne adopted the terminology but not the essence of the Commission recommendations. In doing so he pleased neither those who support the Tyrie Commission’s view nor the City, whose bankers reportedly feel “betrayed.”
The ever popular "if" moves on to defence
On 31 January the Prime Minister promised to “ring fence” defence spending. But a key newspaper for the Conservative base, the Daily Telegraph, highlighted the illusory nature of the promise. Like the European Union Referendum, he promised to do so after the election in 2015 if he is elected. But worse for the Prime Minister, within hours his Defence Secretary was “clarifying” that the pledge only applied to hardware, not personnel. A promise obviously intended to address the concerns of a base rocked by the announcement of further losses of “thousands” of Defence personnel and the Coast Guard. This became a slippage in the strained fault lines within the Conservative Party.
What divides a Party sometimes is at least as telling as what unites it. The Conservative Party is deeply divided on lifestyle issues, grass roots nationalism vs neo-liberal trans nationalism, traditional conservative values of integrity and financial responsibility vs a politician’s fealty to those who pay the bills (The City donors). These divisions now affect the Conservative Party on other issues, for instance spilling over into bipartisan criticism of the Department of Work and Pensions and ATOS of the disabled, including former military personnel disabled in combat.
Polls show the public recognizes the internal division. And the division itself further erodes support for the Conservative Party.
The future extends an unknown highway into fog for an unforseeable period
It is less clear what all this means for the future.
The polls reflect no clear winner from the turmoil. Labour, whether standing on 42% or 45% as recently polled or even 1 standard deviation higher does not appear poised to represent a majority of the electorate even if it wins a majority of seats in the House of Commons. Hence one cannot be clear that a switch in leadership from Coalition to Labour will produce short term much less long term a fundamental shift away from Coalition policies. The Conservative rebels itch to dump their Coalition Partners, but even were they to win over 100% of UKIP voters they cannot, as it stands now, expect to win a majority in the House of Commons much less control policy. It is unlikely that a Liberal Democrat Party still firmly in the grasp of the Orange block’s economic liberalism and reeling from the downsides of Coalition could combine with Miliband’s “One Nation” economic pluralism. But the tectonics opening up under the Conservative Party suggest a direction that leads away from renewed Coalition with Liberal Democrats even were the Liberal Democrats, smarting from what Coalition has meant to their credibility, to entertain the idea of entering a Coalition with anybody ever again. Nor does it appear even a tarnished “New Labour” model could now deliver Liberal Democrat voters.
It would appear that the only certainty - at least for a time - is uncertainty for the social, economic and political direction of the United Kingdom. One day no doubt pundits will look back on this period and claim to have seen the direction in which these forces of change will lead, but I will confess right here, right now, it isn’t clear to me. It isn’t even clear that traditional British moderation and national identity will once again reassert itself against either neo-liberal transnationalism on the one hand or the forces of extremism so prevalent in the rest of the West on the other.
Wish Britain luck in the journey ahead.