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Matthew Parris

When party leaders depart from the script, all hell breaks loose

27 July 2013

9:00 AM

27 July 2013

9:00 AM

It is within the experience of even the humblest of MPs that those who oppose what you do will berate you with a great deal more passion than you will ever attract from those who support your plans. Any help you can give may be treated by its beneficiaries as no more than your duty; but the people on the other side will treat your unhelpfulness as a massive personal injury. And if this is true of minor political players, how much more is it true of serious policymakers. As the second Lord Falkland remarked on losing a bill in the upper chamber because not all his supporters had bothered to turn up at an evening sitting, ‘Those who hated it hated it worse than the Devil; while those who loved it loved it not more than their -dinner.’

I mention this because I think somebody ought to thank David Cameron for his steadfast efforts to get gay marriage through parliament. It was a good idea, a brave idea, and the Prime Minister showed quiet valour in his refusal to be panicked out of it.

I don’t plan here to reopen the arguments on the merits of the measure. I know well that some who have opposed what is now the Equal Marriage Act have been motivated by a sincere and public-spirited conviction that same-sex marriage will be bad for society; others by a genuine belief that it is against the declared will of God; and yet others by the honest assessment that Britain is not ready for this step and Mr Cameron would permanently damage his own party’s morale, and suffer an irrecoverable loss of support in the more important things the Conservatives are doing, by persisting with it. Obviously I don’t agree, but they had every right to their opinion, it was a perfectly arguable point of view, and they argued it with something little short of ferocity. The ‘anti’ campaign was well-organised and — given that polls suggest it was a minority point of view — pursued with skill and tenacity. Much of their anger (I suspect) arose from a feeling that the Tories were not the right people to be bringing in such a change. I doubt the move, if advanced by (say) Tony Blair or Nick Clegg, would have aroused the feelings of betrayal that one sensed beneath the Tory surface, or that it would have been so bitterly opposed.

And it is for the same reason, I suggest, that David Cameron never seemed to me to get the warmth of support or gratitude from what you might call the gay lobby, or from socially liberal opinion in Britain generally. I know some gay friends and liberals who actually confessed to a certain discomfort that a Tory PM would be spearheading this change. The gay campaigning organisation, Stonewall, of course gave him plenty of support, as did a range of other groups and individuals; but his support came from quarters that were perhaps a little surprised he was doing this: it seemed almost bemused at times, and many friends assured me that he’d probably drop the idea in the end. Meanwhile the antis raged against him worse (as Lord Falkland might have observed) than the Devil.

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So whereas Mr Cameron might be said to deserve the more praise because he championed a reform that went against the grain of what many suppose to be his party’s instincts, the result was that the reform’s foes were the more enraged, and its friends the less full-hearted, because of his very boldness in adopting it.

I fear there may be lessons in this for Ed Miliband. I’ve been surprised at how little and how half-hearted has been the credit he’s been given by people who don’t support the Labour party, and by the media and particularly the Westminster lobby, for his principled and daring decision to try to recast his party’s relationship with the trades unions.

The announcement astonished me. It risks bankrupting his party. It goes right against the instincts and loyalties of one of the cores of Labour support. Yet the response from most of those commentators among the Tories, the Liberal Democrats and the less partisan parts of the media has veered between a begrudging one-and-a-half cheers and an outright sneer.

There appear to be two lines of attack among those who support the principle of what the Labour leader wants to do: first, that he’s only doing it because he’s been forced to, cornered by allegations about the Unite union’s involvement in the selection of a candidate for Falkirk East; second, that he won’t go through with it anyway, and will meet such opposition that he’ll be forced to abandon or fatally water down his ambitions.

I don’t know where the idea that Miliband lacks guts comes from. Certainly he’s cautious; but how you can call a man a coward when he knifed his own brother for the most uncertain possibility of the leadership of his party, I’m at a loss to say. Nor is it true that the Falkirk allegations forced him into this. Yes, he was under pressure to do something, but it could easily have been more limited. To me the sequence of events suggests a man who may have been looking for a casus belli, not forced unwillingly into a fight.

As for the charge that Miliband lacks the sense of purpose to see this through — well, we shall see. You might equally suspect that,having made the leap, he will have courage thrust upon him, because the consequences of backing down now could be fatal to his leadership. I’m not ready yet to pronounce, as so many of my media colleagues are, that his ambitions to remake his party’s relationship with the unions are doomed.

This much, however, seems likely: that in his great project Mr Miliband will not get the support or admiration that logic and justice suggest he deserves from the centre or right; they think it’s out of character and somehow all a bit rum; while from many within his own party, and from the union movement, he can expect intense and dogged opposition — because they too think it’s out of character, and very rum indeed.

Such are the perils of departing from the script. But if Miliband succeeds, the whole of sensible Britain will owe him three cheers for breaking a corrosive link between organised labour and the centre-left. Those millions of us who similarly approve of what David Cameron has done for equal marriage owe him our hearty thanks too. He has mine. I think it was heroic.

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