David Cameron voted against the majority of Conservative MPs who took part in the division yesterday on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. He was one of 37 Tories voting in favour; 49 voted against. The rest found something better to do.
First of all, there is the “they aren’t defying me if I make it a free vote” tactic. He did this earlier in the year when he allowed his MPs to back the Bill Cash amendment on the Lisbon Treaty. Of course, the argument against that is that the Embryology Bill comes under that catch-all of a “conscience issue”. He can probably get away with this as, aside from the apparent admission that political philosophy is completely useless when it comes to fundamental issues of principle such as the rights and wrongs of abortion, it is a view shared by politicians from across the political spectrum (while insisting that J.S. Mill & co DO have something instructive to say on, for example, the practicalities of recycling). It is hard to see how the Lisbon Treaty came under this category though. Or House of Lords Reform.
What is interesting with this Bill however, is that while Cameron supported the Bill overall, he has adopted a quite a reactionary view when it comes to the detail. Backing Mad Nad’s (I’d call her Dorries Karlof but that one’s taken) 20 Weeks amendment is particularly peculiar given the fact that her case has been pretty comprehensively quashed by the scientific evidence. 20 week fever appears to have gripped the Conservative Party. Alan Duncan was raving about it on Any Questions despite seeming unclear about what the current limit actually is (which rather suggests he hasn’t done the slightest bit of research into the subject). It has been dressed up as the safe, reasonable, responsible thing for right-minded Conservatives to do when in fact it is a blatant wedge strategy (apparently funded by the religious right, it emerges).
But the more tricksy one is this proposed amendment to the Bill regarding IVF to single women and lesbian couples. Andrew Lansley is proposing to reword the Bill’s requirement for “supportive parenting” thus: “the need for supportive parenting and a father or a male role model.”
On the surface this seems innocuous enough. Certainly a “male role model” is up there on my list of “desirable” things for a child to grow up with. Lansley was insistent that this wasn’t about excluding lesbian couples. It is certainly something worth exploring in committee. Would sticking a poster of David Beckham up on the side of the crib suffice, for instance?
And yet. And yet. While I think there is something in the argument that the current problems we face with youth gangs and violence on the streets is rooted in the lack of supportive parenting, what I’m not clear about is that it is somehow rooted in lesbians getting IVF treatment. Getting IVF is a much more stringent process than having a fumble in the back of a car, and no-one is proposing to change that. A tiny minority of women get IVF treatment. Of them, a minority of them are lesbians. Of them, a tiny minority of them are likely to end up in a gang. Just what are the Conservatives preventing here? Maybe one thug per decade being grown in a test tube?
Once again, this appears to be a “reasonable” amendment being supported by the Tory front bench which you only need to take a sideways glance at the attack dogs yapping at their sides to see the real agenda. Can you say “dog whistle”?
It all seems so tactical. I don’t know if Cameron is the liberal he claims to be or not and to an extent that is irrelevant. What I’m concerned about is how a Cameron government would behave in the face of a reactionary Conservative backbench of the kind we are likely to continue to see for decades to come. His approach since becoming leader has been to avoid confrontation where possible, and capitulate where not. In this respect he is very different from Tony Blair circa 1995. Blair loved to face down his detractors in the party; that’s why the “demon eyes” approach was so unconvincing. With Cameron, we really do seem to be getting a Tory wolf in woolly liberal’s clothing.