George Osborne’s spirited bid in The Times (£) earlier this week to appropriate the Obama victory for the Tories is a curious mirror image of the Labour Party’s arguments to the same effect. Both ignore the reality that the US is the US, not us, and Obama is Obama; formulas for election success aren’t a peel-off/stick-on tattoo, to be transferred between one body politic and another.
But the article was interesting for what it told us about the Chancellor himself, quite apart from a slightly nerdy obsession with American elections. The fifth and decisive point in his piece was all about how social liberalism plus fiscal conservatism was the key to electoral success. As far as Mr Osborne is concerned, if you make the case for spending cuts plus abortion and gay marriage, well bingo, you’ve got the women voters in the bag and success is yours. As he observed, ‘I wouldn’t change the abortion laws and I strongly support gay marriage on principle.’ Well, foetuses don’t vote; feminists do. Though probably not much for George Osborne.
I’m a woman voter myself and that combination of hardcore austerity and social libertarianism is about as repellent a combination as I can think of. It doesn’t, may I say, take away from the overall impression conveyed by the Chancellor which was mercilessly summed up by Nadine Dorries – yes, yes, I know – when she said he was one of two ‘posh boys who don’t know the price of milk.’ It’s Lord Snooty crossed with the social outlook of Harriet Harman. Especially as the abortion laws that George Osborne supports include the provision for abortion up to birth for foetuses with a serious deformity – cleft palate say. The number of late abortions isn’t small: over a couple of hundred every year.
The thing is, Mr Osborne is onto a loser with this one. He’s chasing after gay voters and feminist voters, but by and large, the people who define themselves primarily as gays or feminists – as opposed to incidental gays or feminists – are not going to vote Tory. Ever. They may be pushed even to vote LibDem next time.
The only constituency that’s really going to be galvanised by the Chancellor’s display of his liberal conscience is conservative Conservatives. And the effect on them is entirely negative. I spoke to one elderly Tory the other day who said that after the party came out for gay marriage, he’d still – holding his nose – be paying his subscription but he wouldn’t be giving them anything extra or lifting a finger for them come the election. And there are any number of others who feel that their noses, to adapt a famous phrase, are being rubbed in diversity. It may be pushing it to suggest, as the Daily Mail did in a trenchant report on Mr Osborne’s article, that the Tories could lose a million votes through its support for gay marriage but there are certainly going to be losses as well as gains and the losses may outweigh the gains.
It’s one thing to support these things on principle, as Mr Osborne says he does with gay marriage, but quite another to advance this programme as a cynical electoral calculation. And that’s precisely what he does in his piece. But if people are repelled as well as attracted by gay marriage – not just homophobes but people who feel that marriage has an inherent heterosexual character – then the calculation may simply backfire.
All the Chancellor has done has reinforced his unfitness ever to lead the Tory party because he’s so out of touch with so many of its basic instincts, chiefly those of the church-going, socially-engaged, parish-council sort of Tory. And it follows his telling and unpopular decision to tax child benefit for those earning over £50,000 a year which similarly alienated many in the party who are opposed a) to taxes that fall hardest on families with one earner rather than two and b) complex, means-related tax.
And it was a bit of a nerve for him to quote in his conclusion Margaret Thatcher in her introduction to the 1979 election manifesto: ‘The heart of politics is not political theory, it is people and how they want to live their lives.’ Someone, somewhere, ask Margaret Thatcher just what her view is of gay marriage. And then let the Chancellor know what she says.