In the management of his increasingly fractious backbenchers, David Cameron was generally reckoned on February 5 to have made a serious and unforced error. This was the day when a majority of them voted against him on the gay marriage bill. They accused him of being an out-of-touch metropolitan trendy, and of the still more intolerable sin of ignoring them. Already it can be said of Cameron, as D.R. Thorpe wrote of Harold Macmillan: "He had contempt for many of his backbenchers, some of whom felt he was never a Tory at all."
Yet only a few days later, Cameron was being cheered by those same backbenchers for the deal he had negotiated in Brussels to cut the EU budget. Many observers had imagined he would be unable to achieve this. And a fortnight earlier, on January 23, Cameron gave a performance which was even more unexpected, and even more successful. His speech on Europe, which had again and again been delayed, was bound, most people thought, to antagonise one side or the other. If he placated his Eurosceptic backbenchers, who consider themselves the heirs to Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher, he could not avoid antagonising the whole European establishment, including Brussels, Berlin, Paris, Kenneth Clarke, the American administration and big business.
Cameron found a middle road where none appeared to exist. This was an Anglican speech: one which charted a middle way, or via media, between two extremes. Bruce Anderson, in the Spectator, has dismissed the Prime Minister's religion as "a vaguely pantheistic, sherry-with-the-vicar sort of Anglicanismâ€”less of a religion than an inoculation against religion". This is quite wrong. People of an ideological frame of mind never get the point of Anglicanism. Cameron's Anglicanism is more accurately described as a way of being religious without sounding religious. I don't suppose the Prime Minister ever digs up his faith in order to see how devout he is. But his asperity is an Anglican asperity. He believes in marriage: that is part of his inherited moral code; part of a tradition of behaviour which he accepts without delving into its origins. When Cameron speaks of extending the benefits of marriage to gay people, he is confident he is doing the right thing. In order to preserve a valuable institution and adapt it to modern conditions, he proposes adjustments which may not be exactly what he himself would have chosen. He will not be so self-indulgent as to put his own comfort before the need to be progressive. Nor will he adopt an excessively rigorous attitude to doctrine. What an excellent bishop he would have made.Â
His speech was a sermon, designed to disarm criticism, or at least to make his critics look extreme, and to impel, one might almost say compel, any decent, moderate, pragmatic person to agree with him. From the first, as he gave us his idea of Britain, he struck an inclusive note: "Independent, yesâ€”but open, too. I never want us to pull up the drawbridge and retreat from the world. I am not a British isolationist. I don't just want a better deal for Britain. I want a better deal for Europe too."
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