23/05/2013 13:39 BST | Updated 23/07/2013 06:12 BST

Cameron Isn't Redefining Marriage, He's Wrecking It


Prime Minister David Cameron and his metropolitan chums in Downing Street are no doubt hoping to put the divisive same-sex marriage debate behind them. Thinking he has escaped what could have been a catastrophic collapse of the Bill on Monday night, he will be mightily relieved that the Bill has cleared the Commons, albeit with a humiliating concession to Labour. He can dust himself down and be glad it's all over, right? Wrong.

He has woefully misjudged this issue from the start, and he's still misjudging it now. Far from sidestepping trouble, he has landed right in it. To stave off a rebellion on Monday, Cameron desperately grabbed the only lifeline on offer - a last-minute deal with Labour to immediately review the role of civil partnerships with the intention of allowing heterosexuals to opt in. Not only could this cost £4bn in public service pension rights alone, it will usher in a two-tier system offering marriage-lite for straight couples.

The question of what to do with civil partnerships has been hanging around for months. Why should gay couples get two options - gay marriage or civil partnerships - while straight couples have only the option of marriage? It's an inherent inequality in a Bill which is supposed to be all about equality. In February the point was put to Mr Cameron during Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons, but he rebuffed it saying: "Frankly, I'm a marriage man." Not any more he's not. Frankly, now he's a marriage wrecker.

There can no longer be any doubt, this Bill wrecks marriage. Labour's amendment, scrawled on a dog-eared scrap of paper and hastily tabled in the Commons at the eleventh hour. The Bill to wreck marriage has social liberals giddy with delight. Diane Abbott has given a speech saying it's what she's always dreamed of. She paid tribute to Peter Tatchell, Ken Livingstone and Tony Blair for laying the groundwork. To which we now add the name David Cameron.

No wonder Conservatives are leaving the party in their droves. As one councillor told BBC Breakfast earlier this week, rewriting the meaning of marriage just isn't conservative. It's utterly out of step with the core values of a party that's supposed conserve key institutions like marriage. If the Conservative Party can't conserve marriage, what can it conserve? What's it there for?

Councillors have resigned, association chairmen have walked out, membership has plummeted and voters have flocked to Ukip. The rise of Nigel Farage's party isn't about policy, it's about mood. Socially conservative voters feel ignored. Worse, they've been sneered at. Cameron and his chums are elitist, metropolitan, smug and superior. The jibe that grassroots Tories are just a bunch of "swivel-eyed loons", whether or not it was ever actually said by one of Cameron's inner circle, did so much damage because it was totally believable. It fits.

It leaves a very bad taste in the mouth as the Bill heads to the Lords. Peers are already unhappy with the way this policy has been hustled through the Commons with unseemly haste and the bare minimum of scrutiny. No mandate from the people, no green paper, no white paper, a sham consultation, and no mention in any Queen's Speech, every parliamentary shortcut taken. It wasn't a manifesto pledge, so there's no reason the Lords can't vote it down at Second Reading on 3 June. Lord Dear, the respected independent Peer and former HM Inspector of Constabulary, has tabled a motion to do just that.

Even if the Lords doesn't vote down the Bill at Second Reading, there will be numerous opportunities to amend or defeat the Bill later in the Lords. There's a long way to go before this Bill becomes law, and the battle in the Lords is likely to be a lengthy, drawn out and painful affair for the Cameron. And with the Bill now carrying Labour's £4bn civil partnership free-for-all, the Prime Minister will be seen for what he is: not a marriage redefiner, but a marriage wrecker.