The Week in Review: How not to introduce gay marriage

Messing up marriage? Cameron's pitch for gay marriage is starting to go all 'omnishambles'.
Messing up marriage? Cameron's pitch for gay marriage is starting to go all 'omnishambles'.
Ian Dunt By

As if by accident, David Cameron discovered he was about to put an anti-gay law on the statute book. For a moment, he must have been confused. After all, he had started the week as a hero of liberals everywhere, powering ahead with an even more robust form of gay marriage than he had originally promised. And yet he ended it once again friendless – hounded by gay rights campaigners, religious officials and Tory backbenchers.

What remarkable idea had he discovered which could unite these three disparate tribes? He had decided to ban the Church of England and the Church in Wales from holding gay weddings.

As a sidenote, it's delightfully modest of the Church in Wales to merely tell us its location rather than allude to its dominance, like its more arrogant cousin.

And so it came to pass that a week which began with Cameron as the hero of gay marriage ended with him promising to pass an anti-gay law. It was quite a bullet to take, so one hoped he would benefit. Alas, it pleased no-one. Tory backbenchers literally can't be pleased. It's not in their DNA. They're the political versions of those people who start complaining about the heat on the first day of summer. They don't want to be happy.

The Church of England and the Church in Wales were displeased because no-one had bothered to tell them anything about it. One second, they're facing the prospect of having to fight off gay marriage in the future, the next they were being told they'd never be able to do it, no matter what happens. It must be like having a very stroppy, schizophrenic parent. They can only sit and watch while everyone argues about what's best for them. Ironically (or is it?) those very same MPs were arguing they couldn't possibly intervene over women bishops not so long ago.

The gay rights campaigners, as you might imagine, were also unimpressed. Not only was the move regressive, it had no conceivable ethical consistency.

There are modernising Tories quite prepared to take the fight to their traditionalist colleagues over the issue, which is seen as a bellweather test of whether the party can change with the times. The modernisers have public opinion and long-term positioning on their side, but the traditionalists have core supporters and some pretty senior ministers on theirs.

Waiting on the wings are Ukip, who hope to benefit by picking up disenchanted old-school Conservatives. Being anti-gay marriage is, of course, a strange position for a supposedly libertarian party to take, but let's not get into the messy business of ethical consistency. Cameron tried it and he got into a terrible mess.

Speaking of the prime minister's consistency, a home affairs committee report into drugs decriminalisation may have brought back memories of his misspent youth. These were the sunny days of 2002, when, as a naive young backbencher, he would spend the days aimless on its predecessor committee, talking all sorts of liberal nonsense about investigating alternatives to prohibition. Mercifully, those days are behind him. He has cut his hair, settled down and got a new house. He votes Conservative.

The home affairs committee came to the conclusion committees usually do when they survey the spectacular disaster that is the war on drugs, which is to conclude: 'Perhaps we should change course.' Cameron wasn't having it. He insisted everything was absolutely fine - nothing to see here - and got on his way.

And that would have been the end of it, if it wasn't for Clegg having one of those pesky moral consistency moments. On Monday it appeared to skip his mind that an investigatory panel on drugs was official Lib Dem policy. But by Friday he had remembered and was making a lot of noise about it. It partly doesn't matter. Clegg's just stating policy for the next election, which he will not win. But it does make him the most senior politician to ever call for a rethink since Britain embarked down the path of prohibition. It's a milestone of sorts. All the way up there with the first anti-gay law since Section 28.


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