This week MPs troop back to parliament. And one of the trickier problems in David Cameron's in-tray is the issue of abortion counselling. Many people have argued that the issue is specious. Women have drawn from their personal experiences to press home the point that the most important thing is to ensure that a woman's right to choose is not eroded. But for Cameron, abortion counselling is not just one of those random issues that flares up and then disappears. It can only be understood in the wider context of social conservatism. And for him it poses the problem of how to manage his own right wing.
The right in this country have long looked with envy at conservatives in the United States who have successfully detached millions of "blue collar" American voters from the Democratic party on the basis of so-called "values" issues. Thomas Frank's "What's the Matter with Kansas" sets out what happened. Values in this context are a euphemism for the socially conservative agenda. In America this encompasses not just abortion, but gay rights, women's rights, stem cell research, school prayer, abstinence instead of birth control and more.
But this is a more difficult strategy to pull off here in Britain. We do not have the equivalent of the religious right. And even if we did, far fewer Britons are regular churchgoers. British media regulation does not allow a Fox News to pump out blatantly socially conservative propaganda 24 hours a day. And issues such as abortion have always been non-party political. But there is a wing of the Conservative party that would dearly like to politicise these issues for their own advantage.
The leadership of the Tory party have always attempted to keep their hands clean on the cruder manifestations of social conservatism. George Osborne may be a bone-crunching rightwinger on economic matters, but he is a London boy of a certain generation. Social conservatism can have little personal appeal for him. But the Cameroons also know they have to manage a fractious right wing in parliament who loathe the coalition, resent the fact that so many Lib Dems have ministerial positions, and mourn their inability to give free rein to their passions on issues such as Europe. It must be tempting for Cameron to throw his own right wing a bone by pandering to them on "values" issues.
But he also knows that there is an electoral price to pay. The Republican leadership pandered to the religious right for years. Now they are being held hostage by them. The Tea Party and the religious right are disproportionately represented in the Republican base. These are the people who vote in Republican presidential primaries. For the Republican faithful, only a far right Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry will do. But they are precisely the type of Republican candidate most likely to mobilise the disillusioned Democratic base (and many independents) to come out and vote for Obama in 2012.
Cameron came back from holiday and promptly vetoed official support for the "counselling" vote. But his right wing remains restless and attracted to an extreme conservative agenda on social issues. A women's right to choose may have dodged a bullet this time. We may not be so lucky the next. This article was originally published here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/sep/06/abortion-counselling-cameron-right-wing