Last week British Conservative leader David Cameron, who will be challenging Gordon Brown in next month’s general election in the UK, had a mini meltdown of sorts during a filmed interview with the Gay Times. The trouble started when the interviewer asked Cameron why his Tories in the European Parliament failed to support a recent vote criticising a Lithuanian law banning the “promotion of homosexuality” (The image below is an actual campaign flyer in Vilnius for the Lithuanian law). David Cameron seemed completely caught off guard, and could only respond that he didn’t know anything about the vote.
This is hardly surprising since Cameron has in the past demonstrated that he knows little to nothing about what goes on in Brussels, even though he took the dramatic action last year of removing his party from the main centre-right EU grouping and creating a new Eurosceptic group with hard right parties from Eastern Europe. British MEPs were in an awkward situation when it came to this vote, which received a lot of publicity on the continent. Their main ally in the new grouping, the Polish Law and Justice Party, has an explicitly anti-gay platform. In the end the Tories did not support the vote condemning the Lithuanian law.
In trying to explain his lack of knowledge of the European Parliament vote, Cameron explained that he does not instruct his MEPs in Brussels how to vote and leaves them to vote how they wish. But then when asked if he would do the same with gay rights votes in the British parliament, he became flustered.
So-called “free-votes” in the UK usually only happen for unimportant issues, and for important issues the MPs are “whipped” in order to vote a certain way. If a party allows a free vote on an issue, it means the issue is not important to them. Cameron has previously said gay rights votes would be whipped.
But when asked if free votes would also apply for gay rights votes in the national parliament, Cameron seemed to suggest they would. When asked for clarification, he became flustered. He started staring intently on the floor and muttering to himself, before complaining about the camera being on and asking if they could start from scratch. It was the most unhinged the normally super-smooth Cameron has become in an interview ever. Watch the video below.
The British media ran with this story, which became both about Cameron's confusion on gay rights issues and the meltdown itself. The Times led with the headline “Cameron loses the plot in gay interview”. Sky News and ITN took similar angles. Even the right-wing Telegraph carried the story.
The stumble is big news in the UK because in order for the Conservatives to win next month it is essential that Cameron is able to rebrand them as a 'new kind of Tory', different from the party whose reputation for nastiness lost them so many elections in the 1990s and has shut them out of power since. A central part of that rebranding has been Cameron’s commitment to gay rights. But how deep is that commitment? The stumbles in this interview are making many question whether Cameron really understands what gay rights even are. Labour has pounced on this as an illustration of the fact that Cameron, the former PR man, loses the plot when he gets off his talking points and forgets his script. And that line of attack has been increasingly effective as the election gets closer.
Time will tell if this gaffe will be enough to scare away the moderate voters that Cameron desperately needs next month. But for the conservative party leader in the Czech Republic, the damage has already been done.
Recently the leader of ODS (incidentally another party in Cameron’s new EU coalition) Mirek Topolánek made some incendiary remarks during a photo shoot with the Czech gay magazine LUI. The editor of the magazine decided to publish the comments, and the result was the equivalent of an atom bomb in Czech politics. During the photoshoot he questioned the moral character of Jews and accused Christian churches of brainwashing people. After the publication Topolánek said the comments had been taken out of context, so the magazine published the full video from the shoot. Topolánek was forced to step down.
I think this is all fascinating really. Here you have the leaders of two conservative parties, both from largely secular and progressive countries, who have tried to reach out to gay voters and in the process fallen flat on their faces. For me it’s interesting because I can never imagine the leader of the Republican Party in the US doing an interview with a gay magazine, it would be unheard of. But both the UK and the Czech Republic have large gay populations and have little religious influence in their politics (that goes double for the Czech Republic, which is one of the most atheistic countries in the world).
At the same time, these incidents are illustrations of the pitfalls that can befall Conservative parties as they enter this new territory. Cameron is right when he notes in the interview that the Tories are way ahead of other centre-right parties around the world on the gay rights issue, and that the other parties will eventually have to catch up. But there is a distinct disadvantage to being the first mover on anything, and Cameron may find that being the first pro gay rights Anglo-Saxon conservative leader is trickier than he anticipated. As many commentators observed last week, it’s almost as if he thought this would be as simple as saying “I like gays, hooray for civil unions” and that would be that. It’s as if he’s put no thought into the actual policy issues that are involved in gay rights.
When he makes such a high-profile stumble as he did in the Gay Times interview, it makes it easier for Labour to paint him with the brush of being all talk and no substance. I’ve talked to several gay people in the past week who were planning to vote Tory in the next election but are now reconsidering. The sad thing is this experience may scare Cameron away from doing any more interviews with gay publications. Gay rights advocates might be upset over that result, or they might not. If this truly is all window-dressing, perhaps its better for the cause of gay rights if Cameron is not given the forum to pull the wool over the gays’ eyes. That at least is the calculation gay rights advocates may be making at this time.