IN the early days of his Pontificate, the current Pope Benedict XVI outraged many in his own church by saying that it would be better if it were “smaller but purer.”
It was essentially a call to arms for those who do not want the church to reach out to new groups or be more liberal and tolerant in its approach, but instead narrowly focus on an essentially conservative agenda in which only those who share in it are welcome.
As the weeks of coalition government go by, it becomes clearer that the loudest and increasingly most influential Tories want something very similar for the Conservative Party. For them it is obvious that under the leadership of David Cameron they are not going to have that.
The Bill to equalise marriage – in other words allow people of the same gender to marry – will underline what appears to be a growing gulf between Mr Cameron and his inner circle and the rest of the party. Already 25 Conservative association chairs have trooped into Downing Street to demand that the Bill is delayed. They claim that Tory members are leaving in droves because of the legislation.
Things will become worse today when there could be a huge vote against the Bill by up to 180 Tory MPs including four Cabinet ministers. Even though it is a free vote such a rebellion on an issue which the Prime Minister has personally advocated will be a real slap in the face to him.
After all, Mr Cameron once told a Tory conference: “I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative.” While this week’s debate is a significant one for gays and lesbians in England and Wales, it is also a pivotal one in the identity of the Conservative Party.
The Cameron revolution was about ending the “nasty-party” tag and, spreading its values to different groups. It was a liberalisation agenda designed to make the party electable again.
One of the strengths of the Conservative Party throughout history has been that it has had leaders who recognised what Cameron now recognises and reached out. People like Sir Robert Peel, Benjamin Disraeli, Harold Macmillan and even Margaret Thatcher found ways of talking to people who had previously not been Conservatives.
This week, while Mr Cameron will win the vote courtesy of Labour and Lib Dem MPs, he will lose in his own party, which will demonstrate it has no interest in reaching out and instead wants to be a narrow party again, focussed on a Tory purism which kept it out of power from 1997.
It is perhaps not surprising that in this atmosphere there has been fevered speculation about leadership challenges. The problem for Mr Cameron is that his party think that because he had to make a deal with the Lib Dems that his modernisation did not work, rather than considering whether voters wanted the party to properly prove it is no longer “nasty”.