UNCERTAINTY ON TORIES ATTITUDE TO GAY RIGHTS
March 24, 2010
Tory leader appears less than confident when asked about attitude of Conservative MEPs and peers to homosexuality…
David Cameron’s efforts to present the Conservatives as a modernised party suffered a blow when he stumbled in a recent interview over gay rights.
The Tory leader has attempted to reach out to the gay community as part of his attempts to persuade voters that the Tory party has changed its views on equality issues.
But he repeatedly faltered in a video interview with Gay Times magazine, at one point asking for the camera to be switched off while he gathered his thoughts.
Cameron was accused of making a “major gaffe” by Ben Bradshaw, the culture secretary, who is gay.
The Tory leader was pressed on why, in light of his recent pronouncements on gay rights, his MEPs refused to support a motion condemning a homophobic law in Lithuania.
He agreed in the interview that gay equality was a fundamental human right, before going on to say that the Tories usually had free votes on equality issues.
Cameron said he was unaware of this particular European vote, before insisting that he rarely issues instruction to MEPs “to vote in this way or that way because they have their own leader and their own group”.
Cameron has previously been criticised for pulling Tory MEPs out of the main centre-right grouping in the European parliament and forming a new group alongside colleagues from the Polish Law and Justice party, which has faced repeated accusations of homophobia.
The Tory leader told the Gay Times: “I’ve tried to have free votes where possible on these sorts of issues but, er … I’m responsible for votes here. Sorry, it’s not a very good answer.”
Pressed on whether free votes were appropriate for a fundamental human right, a clearly flustered Cameron said: “You’re right, you’re right. Sorry, sorry. You’re right … The two are very different. Sorry.”
Cameron attempted to clarify matters during a routine press conference afterwards.
He told Channel 4 News: “The point is, in the European parliament, our MEPs have a general approach of not voting on the internal matters of another country, even if we disagree with the particular law that there is.
“And I think it’s a balance to get that right, but I can see why, if you believe in a looser federation, if you believe that the European Union should be about cooperation rather than about one nation called Europe, then actually, it does make sense in many circumstances to say: ‘Look, these are internal matters for other countries, rather than things we should vote on ourselves.'”
Channel 4 News disputed that this was the norm for Tory MEPs, saying Conservative European parliamentarians had tabled a motion on press freedom in Italy a month after the Lithuanian vote.
Bradshaw said it was “extraordinary” that the Conservative leader had said equality matters should be left to a free vote.
“[Cameron has] talked a good talk on some of these issues but his voting record hasn’t been very good. He’s learned a script, but when he’s actually scrutinised and forgets the script, he doesn’t have the fundamental core belief to support him in his argument.”
As the filmed interview draws to a close, Cameron also struggles to answer a question on whether Conservative peers would have a free vote on civil partnerships, or whether how the Tories voted would be decided by party whips.
Asked about an amendment to allow civil partnerships to take place in places of worship, Cameron said: “I think it’s an important debate, this, and I don’t rule out changes. I think it’s right there should be a free vote. It was a backbench amendment.”
This prompted the interviewer to tell Cameron: “If we vote for you, we want you to vote for us.”
The Tory leader said: “I do, I do. Do you know – can we stop for a second?”
The party leader has assiduously been courting the gay vote over the past 12 months and the party is fielding a number of openly gay candidates at the next general election.
Last summer, Cameron offered a public apology for section 28, the controversial Tory legislation introduced in the 1980s that banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools.
Cameron voted against the repeal of section 28 as recently as 2003.
Cameron also predicted at a gay pride event last summer that a Conservative would become Britain’s first openly gay prime minister.
The issue of gay rights surfaced as the government confirmed that inciting hatred against gay people because of their sexuality is now a criminal offence that can lead to a jail term of up to seven years.
Maria Eagle, the junior justice minister, denied that the measure, aimed at those stirring up “homophobic hatred”, would affect comedians making politically incorrect jokes.
She said: “Intentionally stirring up hatred because of sexual orientation will not be tolerated. This is not about stifling artistic creativity or criminalising comedians for making jokes that are not seen to be politically correct.”
The move was welcomed by a campaign group for gay rights. Ben Summerskill, the chief executive of Stonewall, said it would encourage more lesbians and gays to report hate crimes.
“Lesbian, gay and bisexual people are entitled to live without fear like everyone else,” he said.