British Prime Minister David Cameron has won a significant victory in his quest to permit gay marriage in Britain, but it has deepened the divide within his Conservative Party caucus and raised questions about his leadership.
On Tuesday, the British House of Commons voted 366-161 to give third reading to a bill allowing gay marriage. But most of the opposition, 133 MPs, came from Mr. Cameron’s 303-member Tory caucus, dealing him yet another internal blow to a key government policy.
Mr. Cameron is convinced policies such as gay marriage and a measured response to Britain’s relationship with the European Union will help broaden appeal of the Conservatives, who failed to win a majority in 2010 and instead formed a shaky coalition government with the Liberal Democrats.
Party stalwarts say those policies and others have alienated the rank and file and driven members to the suddenly surging United Kingdom Independence Party, or Ukip, which opposes Britain’s membership in the EU and wants to toughen immigration laws.
A recent poll showed Ukip’s popularity had reached 22 per cent, just two percentage points behind the Tories. Ukip has gained five points this month while the Conservatives have dropped six, according to the poll by Survation. The Labour Party remained out front at 35 per cent while the Liberal Democrats were at 11 per cent.
“I understand what David Cameron is saying about trying to reach out to more people than the Conservative Party,” Brian Binley, a backbench Tory MP, told BBC radio on Tuesday. “But he has to realize that he is the caretaker of the Conservative Party and not the proprietor of the Conservative Party.”
Compounding Mr. Cameron’s problems have been allegations this week that a senior party official denigrated party members by calling them “mad, swivel-eyed loons.” And last week, 116 Tory MPs openly challenged Mr. Cameron’s policy to renegotiate Britain’s membership in the EU and then hold a referendum some time after 2015. Many want a referendum much sooner.
In an effort to ease the concerns, Mr. Cameron sent a lengthy “personal note” to hundreds of party members late Monday. “We have been together through good times and bad. This is more than a working relationship; it is a deep and lasting friendship,” he wrote in the e-mail. “I am proud of what you do. And I would never have around me those who sneered or thought otherwise.” He has also proposed legislation to formalize a referendum on EU membership.
It’s not clear how much Mr. Cameron’s soothing has accomplished. Several Tories complained bitterly Tuesday about the gay marriage bill, saying it had been rammed through the House of Commons and it had never been part of the party’s election platform in 2010. A group of Tory MPs also proposed a series of amendments that could have killed the legislation if Mr. Cameron had not struck a deal with Labour to get the motions defeated. The gay marriage bill heads to the House of Lords next month for final approval and could face a rough ride there from Tory peers. If it does pass, same-sex weddings could occur this summer and Britain would become the 14th country to allow gay marriage.
Ukip’s leader, Nigel Farage, has wasted little time in exploiting the Tory disunity. The party took out a full-page ad in the Daily Telegraph this week featuring an open letter to Tories from Mr. Farage. “Only an administration run by a bunch of college kids, none of whom have ever had a proper job in their lives, could so arrogantly write off their own supporters,” he said in the letter. “If you are a Conservative who supports the Ukip position that we should be an independent, self-governing nation, then your party now treats you with contempt.”