What’s in it for Cameron to support same-sex marriage?

Earlier this month, Cameron told his party conference, “I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.”

It’s been said that the announcement was bold, putting Cameron to the left of his party, and restaking his claim to a socially progressive agenda. The polls certainly suggest some interesting consequences for Cameron in taking the position.

Firstly, it’s not clear that others share his view that supporting gay marriage is a Conservative thing to do.

The official speech text confirms he was talking about capital-C Conservatives. Yet only about a third of those who voted Tory last year would support gay marriage. Three in five expressly oppose it.

So, Conservatives don’t think it was a Conservative thing to do, and despite the applause at the time, they may not rejoice in the announcement. But perhaps, regardless of Cameron’s explanation, it was really aimed at supporters of other parties.

It is certainly the case that gay marriage is much more popular with other voters, particularly Lib Dems:

But beyond any attempt to win other parties’ supporters, there are two other polling-based reasons why the announcement could be helpful for Cameron.

There’s been talk for a few weeks that the Tories have a new problem with female voters. This is true, even if Anthony Wells has shown that the issue is that they’ve lost their previous lead, rather than that they’re particularly unpopular among women.

What’s interesting about the same-sex marriage announcement is that the policy is significantly more popular among women than it is among men. There aren’t many policies that split this clearly (nuclear power is one of the few others).

Finally, there may have been an attraction to Cameron in showing that he’s on the side of history.

There haven’t been many polls on same-sex marriage, but two that are available suggest there was a great shift in opinion in the last decade:

The two polls asked the questions in slightly different ways so may not be totally comparable, but the size of the change does suggest a real shift. There looks to be an opportunity for Cameron to demonstrate on this issue that he’s leading his party in a direction in which the rest of the country is already moving.

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