David Cameron faces a crucial year for his future election hopes as he controversially promotes same-sex marriage while putting aside a manifesto pledge to scrap the hunting ban, writes political commentator Stephen Glover...
Here's a puzzle. The Conservative manifesto in 2010 promised a free vote on hunting in the Commons. It declared that the Act that banned hunting with dogs that had been passed by Labour was 'unworkable'. The pledge probably encouraged some people to vote Tory.
You will, however, search the pages of the same manifesto in vain for any reference to gay people being allowed to marry. The idea may have been in David Cameron's mind at the time, but it was not set before the people. No one voted Tory expecting a revolution in the institution of marriage.
Last week, Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, told a newspaper there was no immediate prospect of hunting being made legal again. Mr Paterson, who rides to hounds, said such a vote would be lost and, at any rate for the time being, repealing the Act was impractical.
Meanwhile, the Government forges on with its controversial and divisive proposals for same-sex marriage despite there being no whisper of them in its manifesto. When one ponders the striking differences between the two responses, a puzzle turns into a mind-boggling enigma.
For as the High Court judge Sir Paul Coleridge has just pointed out, about '0.1 per cent of the population' are gay people who want to marry. Maybe the figure is a bit higher. Could it be as much as 1 per cent? At all events, it's tiny. Most gay people seem not to be exercised by the prospect.
The truth is that campaigners for gay marriage represent a minority of a metropolitan minority. I doubt that any of them will vote Tory as a result of Mr Cameron's pandering to their wishes, but it wouldn't make any difference to the electoral outcome if they did.
And yet Mr Cameron is prepared to disenchant more than 100 Conservative backbenchers, many party activists and almost certainly some prospective voters by promoting the cause of gay marriage.
He also finds himself in a state of war with the country's main churches. It's no longer alarmist to speak about a clash between Church and state.
On Christmas Eve, the leader of Roman Catholics in England and Wales, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, lambasted the Prime Minister for his 'undemocratic' and 'Orwellian' plans to legalise gay marriage. That's very strong stuff coming from a normally circumspect Archbishop of Westminster.
One is almost tempted to admire Mr Cameron for clinging so stubbornly to his guns. He may hope that embracing same-sex marriage will continue the work of detoxifying the Conservative Party, but the hullabaloo he has started could turn out to be more toxic than anything the Tories have ever experienced.
His behaviour is potentially so destructive one is driven to the conclusion that he must be at least partly guided by principle and does genuinely believe in gay marriage. Why else would he risk so much upset for such little gain?
But if politics is the art of the possible, it makes no sense to expend so much time and energy on a peripheral cause that will probably be the most contentious Government measure of the coming year.
Contrast Mr Cameron's championing of this minority metropolitan preoccupation with the apparent dumping of a manifesto pledge to repeal Labour's ill-conceived Hunting Act. Mr Paterson may be right to say that a Commons vote would be lost, but if that is the case, so it would have been in 2010 when the pledge was made, and then reaffirmed in the Coalition Agreement.
The Conservative-led Government evidently lacks the will to make the case for hunting. Some Tories have suggested that Mr Cameron, acutely aware of his privileged aura, is anxious to put more distance between himself and the huntin', shootin' and fishin' set. However, the fact is that most people who hunt are not grand.
In the English countryside, where the Tories are by far the strongest party, a majority of people of all classes are in favour of hunting. So it is odd to hold out a prospect to your own supporters of a Commons vote that is then withdrawn, or at any rate kicked into touch.
These people must scratch their heads in bewilderment that the Prime Minister should be ready to sacrifice so much for a metropolitan cause that was never promised in any manifesto while letting them down over a widely popular pledge that is dear to many of their hearts. Here we have a view of the contradictions of 'David Cameron's Conservative Party'.
It sometimes strives to please people who are unlikely ever to vote for it, while being astonishingly cavalier about the feelings of its natural supporters in its own heartlands.
Of course, I don't suggest that hunting is the most important matter for most rural Tories. They generally have more pressing worries on their minds. Nonetheless, a promise was made that is apparently not going to be fulfilled.
Moreover, as they observe Mr Cameron's keenness to placate campaigners for same-sex marriage they may share Sir Paul Coleridge's contention that, instead of fretting about a minority concern, the Government should be doing something on a far more important front to help support married couples and resist family breakdown.
For example, the 2010 Conservative manifesto promised tax allowances for 'marriage and civil partnerships in the tax system in the next Parliament'. The Coalition Agreement committed the Government to bringing forward 'budget resolutions to introduce transferable tax allowances for married couples'. So far, nothing has happened. Another manifesto pledge on the back-burner.
A party that fails to honour its promises and regularly disappoints its natural supporters is likely to find that the most disheartened of them won't bother to vote for it at the next election — or else will support an alternative party, most likely Ukip, which is busily hoovering up disaffected Tories.
The curious thing is that, as far as country matters are concerned, Mr Cameron is on the same wavelength as many rural Tories. Until the hunting ban, he rode with his local Oxfordshire hunt – although he may now wish the fact was forgotten – and he has also shot. He should make a virtue of his country knowledge rather than conceal it.
His privileged background may sometimes hinder him from connecting with Conservative voters over tax or crime, but it shouldn't have such an effect in the case of hunting. Just the opposite, in fact.
This year will be a crucial one for the Prime Minister. If there has been no political recovery by the end of 2013, it will be hard to see how the Tories can win an outright majority at the 2015 general election.
In promoting gay marriage, which doesn't matter to his supporters, and deferring a new Hunting Bill, which does, there is surely an important lesson for the New Year. David Cameron's Conservative Party needs rebalancing. And he should stop wasting so much time and energy in clambering up the wrong tree.