Can Cameron Lead the Conservatives (part 587)?

Stephen Tall has pointed me to this piece by John Rentoul on the Independent Blog:

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.

This sounds awfully familiar. Indeed, the Embryology Bill is a fascinating case study of Cameron Non-Leadership in action.

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.


    More serious though is the outright split between Vince and the Lib Dem peers.

    Er, never mind that, what about this crap I’ve just unearthed about you lot.

    Only found this on Tory Iain Dale’s site.

    “The 38 LibDem Peers voting against the Cable amendment included their 3 “Shadow Cabinet” members, among them their Leader and Chief Whip. Both their Lords’ Deputy Leaders (Dholakia and Wallace) voted against the amendment moved by their Commons Deputy Leader!”

    We You look ridiculous.


    To be fair, at least his bogus email address ( uses more numbers than the standard 1234 deployed by most Tory sock puppets.

  2. James

    Sorry I put the wrong one in by mistake.

    Try the right one!

    So how about the split between your peers and Cable?


  3. The short answer is that I don’t tend to comment on things on Iain’s blog which I can’t verify the facts of. Nothing personal but Iain has a tendency to put a spin on things which means that anything he says about his political opponents has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Add to the fact that I simply do not understand the clause in question (do you?) and the fact that no-one else has picked up on it (including the normally verbose commenters on Iain’s site) and I think I can safely assume it is a storm in a teacup.

  4. Yet another thoughtful, liberal post James. Thank you.

    Can I take it therefore, that the vote on the need for a father (and a believe there will be an amendment on need for a mother – I know, it seems practically helpful as it is, but these fundamentalists are persistent…) will be whipped in the Lib Dems? Surely Cleggy can’t ignore what amounts to an IVF equivalent to Section 21, i.e. not doing anything to address any real problem, but providing a usefully divisive tool to put those dreadful gayers in their collective places.

    I want to be supportive of the Lib Dems, butI would like to see some backbone in policy from Clegg – something that Charlie K was never short of.

    A libral party of whatever colour rosette surely cannot support such state interference in a private medical matter. To imagine that it is anything other than a medical matter suggests that we should go back to basic childcare policy – if homosexuality or single parenthood makes one unfit to raise children, surely there must be millions of kids who need to be taken into immediate state care. We must be consistent.

  5. The short answer to your question Dawn is that I don’t know. For reasons I have never quite fathomed, issues such as abortion and fertility treatments are regarded as matters of “conscience” while things such as whether to go to war or tackle poverty are not and conscience issues don’t get whipped.

    In reality, issues of “conscience” are actually issues that political parties themselves are deeply divided on and for various reasons feel it would be counter-productive to whip. Those reasons include the fact that religions tend to run their own whipping systems on Honourable Members of their flock (again, strangely, this applies to anything involving genitalia but not war or poverty).

    All this, sadly, applies to the Lib Dems as well as the other parties. The difference is that while on these issues our MPs tend to vote for or against liberalism by a proportion of 90:10, the Tories tend to vote on this by a proportion of 30:70 and Labour (unwhipped) tend to vote by a proportion of 70:30. Obviously I’d like the Lib Dems to be more consistent, but they are a damn sight more consistent than the rest.

  6. Is this really so sad? Political parties are coalitions around reasonably coherent sets of ideas on such things as poverty and war, and rarely around such things as fertility and abortion. If voters cared more about the latter than the former it might happen differently – and maybe the US is headed this way – but I don’t think this would be a good thing. Ideally, I suppose, there might be twice as many parties, or STV, giving the voters more of a choice. But as it is I don’t think any party has a mandate to whip on this sort of issue, nor should it seek one.

  7. When you get down to it, there are lots of issues that shouldn’t really be whipped, but are. Where was the mandate for the Iraq War for instance? And no opposition MP can be said to have any mandate; if they had to continue voting along the lines of the manifesto they were elected on, they’d look ridiculous.

    I’d happily see fewer whipped votes in general, but I can’t see that happening any time soon. I also don’t see how there is a principled distinction being made between, say, gay rights and fox hunting versus street cleansing and widget factories. The real difference is expediency and I think it is important to be clear about that.

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