Even by the standards of spectacular and abrupt U-turns by Boris Johnson’s government, ditching a ban on conversion therapy was stunning.
It looked like yet another sop to Tory MPs on the right and party traditionalists, dumping policies they don’t like in the PM’s desperate bid to cling to power after “partygate”.
Yet just a few hours later came not quite a U-turn on a U-turn, but a backtracking: Downing Street declared that the government will ban gay conversion therapy after all, but not trans conversion therapy.
The latest U-turn followed other moves to please the right, such as the abrupt ending of COVID regulations in England, when the trickle of letters from MPs demanding a vote of confidence in his leadership looked set to become a torrent.
Other recent pledges in what insiders have called “Operation Red Meat” and “Save Big Dog”, have included a threat to scrap the BBC licence fee, tougher action on Channel crossings, and pledges on levelling up.
The conversion therapy U-turn came less than 24 hours after Equalities Minister Mike Freer told MPs in the Commons: “We remain wholly committed to bringing forward proposals to ban conversion therapy practices.”
What is conversion therapy?
Also called cure therapy or reparative therapy, conversion therapy refers to any form of treatment or psychotherapy that aims to change a person’s sexual orientation or suppress a person’s gender identity.
Therapies and prayer can be used, while more extreme forms can include “exorcisms, physical violence and food deprivation”, Jayne Ozanne, a former government equality adviser said.
LGBT charity Stonewall says conversion therapy is based on an assumption that being lesbian, gay, bi or trans is a mental illness that can be “cured”.
The NHS and other professional bodies have warned all forms of conversion therapy are “unethical and potentially harmful”.
Minutes later, Mr Freer even repeated his pledge to Caroline Nokes, who chairs the women and equalities select committee, who demanded legislation before a government conference on LGBT issues this summer.
“I can give the commitment that the government remain committed to bringing forward the legislation… a bill team has been stood up and we are progressing at pace,” he told her.
One can only imagine the unfortunate Mr Freer’s reaction hours later when he learned that a leaked Downing Street document stated: “The PM has agreed we should not move forward with legislation to ban LGBT conversion therapy.”
Yes, that’s right: the same prime minister who began PMQs by telling Tory MP Jamie Wallis after he came out as transgender: “I know that the House stands with you and will give you the support you need to live freely as yourself.”
The latest twist
Now, in the latest twist, the government insists it will include legislation in the Queen’s Speech on 10 May. Labour MPs claim Tory MPs who support a ban texted the prime minister because they were ashamed at the move to ditch a ban.
Shambolic? That’s how it looks.
The conversion therapy ban, first proposed in 2018, was championed by Henry Newman, a close friend of the PM’s wife Carrie, and a former Downing Street aide who was purged in the No 10 clear-out at the height of the partygate crisis.
Carrie, let’s not forget, spoke at a fringe meeting at last year’s Tory conference and claimed her husband was “completely committed” to extending LGBT rights.
Not surprising, then, that the leaked Downing Street document predicted a “noisy backlash” and even advised that Mr Freer – who, through no fault of his own, has been left looking a right chump – may resign. Indeed he may!
When the conversion therapy ban was promised in the Queen’s Speech last year, the government said “these abhorrent practices” can cause mental and physical harm.
Announcing the U-turn, the government said it was going to review “how existing law can be deployed more effectively” and explore “other non-legislative measures”.
As predicted, the U-turn certainly did provoke a “noisy backlash”, from LGBT campaigners and MPs of all parties. But opponents of the ban on the Tory benches were soon gloating and celebrating a significant victory.
When the prime minister was at his weakest over partygate in January, 30 Conservative MPs wrote to Mr Johnson urging him not to rush through a new law.
The MPs were reported to include Damian Green, former first secretary of state, Jackie Doyle-Price, an ex-health minister, Sir Robert Syms, a former whip, Ben Bradley, an ex-vice chairman of the Conservatives, and members of the Conservatives’ 2019 intake.
“We are deeply concerned that the government’s recent proposals could criminalise legitimate therapies for children who are suffering from gender dysphoria,” the MPs wrote.
“What is being proposed could have significant unintended consequences for children and could lead to parents, therapists and teachers – who are trying to help children explore why they say they are transgender – facing prosecution.
“We should be listening and learning from each other as we legislate in this sensitive area, not rushing things onto the statute books without debate.
“Much can be gained if we have more debate and scrutiny, but there are severe risks and consequences for children, parents, teachers and therapists if we give in to calls to rush legislation and truncate consideration of these issues.”
Now claiming victory, the right-wing former Brexit minister and government critic Lord Frost tweeted: “It’s a courageous but correct decision. Well done HMG. It would have been a hugely controversial legislative and process minefield.”
It’s worth recalling that in January, demanding policy changes, Lord Frost called on the PM to sack the “neo-socialists, green fanatics and pro-woke crowd” in No 10, in what was seen as an attack on advisers such as Mr Newman, and Carrie Johnson’s influence as the PM fought to save his job.
The evidence of the past 24 hours suggests that the Tory right may have won round one in the battle over conversion therapy, but Lord Frost’s “neo-socialists, green fanatics and pro-woke crowd” appear to have struck back in round two.