David Torrance: PM’s revamp of Tories hits another barrier

LAST night’s vote was about more than allowing same-sex couples to formalise their union in a church, it was also a fascinating progress report on David Cameron’s modernisation project.

In other words, the long-running debate on equal marriage has assumed a more symbolic importance, while yesterday’s five-hour debate drew an oratorical dividing line between Tory modernisers and party traditionalists.

Thus Conservatives voting against gay marriage most likely did so for a variety of reasons, one of which was registering disapproval of Mr Cameron’s leadership style, which they see as aloof, out-of-touch and, perhaps most damagingly, not “truly” Conservative.

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In that context, last night’s vote makes political life more difficult for the Prime Minister, at least within his party.

By backing gay marriage so consistently and with such obvious sincerity, Mr Cameron hopes to demonstrate that the Conservative Party – once, perhaps still, perceived as the “nasty party” – has changed.

The trouble is that for anyone watching the debate or reading the complaints of grassroots Tories in the press, it would have been obvious that the wider Conservative Party remains unreconstructed, not just when it comes to gay marriage, but also over Europe. That, however, might not matter come the next general election, for the number of Conservatives prepared to abandon the party as a result of this issue is pretty small. Besides, credible alternatives for Tories at the ballot box are limited.

The rebels also lack a coherent strategy, for their frustration with the Prime Minister hinges upon a vague notion that he’s not a proper Conservative, a belief he “lost” the 2010 general election because he wasn’t sufficiently right-wing.

Mr Cameron is more popular than the party he leads, but if the divisions in his ranks increase, he will be acutely aware of the likely electoral cost.

The importance the Prime Minister attached to equal marriage also represents the failure of his wider detoxification project. With the Big Society and constitutional reform all but abandoned, all now rests on international aid and gay marriage.

That is not where the modernising Mr Cameron expected to find himself.