Helen Grant is recalling her days as a judo champion, proudly reeling off the parts of the country where she emerged as a number one.
“North of England, Southern, Scotland, junior judo champion…”
Given what’s coming up fast in the Equalities Minister’s diary, her expertise in the art of “the way of yielding” – to give Judo its literal Japanese meaning – might just come in useful.
On Tuesday Grant, who was only appointed to her ministerial brief in September, will be part of a DCMS team charged with steering the Government’s contentious plans to introduce same sex marriage through the Commons.
The policy, which was not in the Conservative Party’s manifesto at the 2010 General Election, has caused considerable disquiet in the Tory ranks as the religious and the socially conservative angrily ask why the party leadership is so keen to tamper with the ancient rite of marriage.
Over 100 Tories MP are said to be ready to oppose David Cameron, who has made introduction of the policy something of a personal mission. The Prime Minister will allow his MPs a free vote, but he will be dreading the sight of his supposedly modernised party spending hours of Commons time arguing amongst itself over the merits of same sex marriage.
But Grant, flanked by press officers from both the DCMS and the Ministry of Justice, where she spends half her ministerial time, sounds remarkably calm about the challenge that awaits.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity actually,” she insists. “It is going to remove the ban on same sex couples getting married so they will be allowed to enter a civil marriage, enter a religious marriage on a permissive basis, there will be proper protections, robust protections for religious organisations, civil partnerships can be converted and there is a special provision for people of trans-gender so that they do not have to get married if they change their gender which is a pretty big thing. It’s a very special piece of legislation, I think, in terms of what it does for justice and equality, in terms of what it does for dealing with discrimination, and in terms of what it does for marriage.”
The answer sounds straight out of David Cameron’s How to Detoxify the Tory Party Handbook circa 2005, and Helen Grant is as good a Conservative MP as one could think of to play that part: brought up by her mother in a council estate in Carlisle, Grant, who is mixed-race, went on to set up her own law firm before switching to politics.
In the last few weeks close Cameron allies have underlined the symbolic importance of the legislation for the party. George Osborne has warned that “successful political parties reflect the modern societies they aspire to lead”, while Francis Maude has said that the Tories must shed their “backward looking social attitudes” if the party is to win the next General Election.
Grant, however, is reluctant to suggest that voting against the Bill would damage the detoxification project.
“No, I don’t think so,” she replies, before underlining why the Bill is fitting with Tory thinking. ”I think equality has always been a huge issue for the Conservative Party and I think marriage has always been a huge issue for the Conservative Party – there are many in the party who support this, want to do it. The Prime Minister is fully behind it and I think it’s pretty consistent, personally, with who we are and what we’re trying to achieve, which is a fairer, richer, more equal society in many ways.”
Yes, she says, there are people “who have strong views about this legislation and you can understand that”, but at the same time “there are many on the other side who have strong views in favour, who want it, and see it as a very good thing”. And her challenge, she explains, is “about getting that balance, as always”.
But she has a simple answer for those Tories who ask ‘why now?’.
“I would say ‘why not now?’ This has been in existence, the law has been the way it has been for a very long time now: civil partnerships went quite a way, but not completely all the way.”
Nor is she convinced by arguments that there are plenty of other things this Government should be concentrating on.
“[The] Government has huge capacity. We’re working very, very hard on the economy and getting that right – but I would say, why not now?”
And for those who say that the policy wasn’t in the manifesto, Grant says the intention was clearly in writing in a separate document. “It was in the Contract for Equalities that was published at the same time as the Conservative General Election manifesto. It was quite clear what our intentions may well be,” she says, pointing to a paragraph which confirms the party’s intention to ‘consider’ the policy.
But before Tuesday’s debate gets underway, the Minister’s message is very much one of cooperation and reassurance: the Government, after “fantastic engagement” from many organisations, wants to change the law, but it doesn’t want to force it upon anyone who disagrees. School teachers “will have to teach the legal factual situation to children about what is happening”, but they will be allowed, “provided it’s done in the right way”, to say that they believe “marriage is between a man and a woman” if that is their opinion.
And religious organisations who don’t want to conduct same sex marriages will be protected. “We’ve got to make sure that there’s a proper protection in place for religious organisations and ministers who do not want to perform same sex marriages,” Grant explains. “Some religious organisations do, such as the Quakers, the Unitarians, others will want to do it as the years go by in the future too, but for those who don’t want to do it we need to make sure that there is nothing to force them to do it and the proper protections are in place.”
Such organisations include the Church of England, and Grant is convinced that a “quad lock” set out in detail in the legislation “makes sure that those that do not want to perform same sex marriages will be under no obligation and that they cannot have an action successfully brought against them for, say, discrimination, victimisation or harassment for refusing to perform a same sex marriage, under the Equalities Act.”
But her suggestion that those organisations who reject same sex marriages now may want to conduct them “in the future” will alarm many CofE members.
“I think it’s a matter for the Church of England,” Grant makes clear. “They’ve got a lot of things to consider at the moment and these things have to be a matter for them to do, if they choose to, when they’re ready, in their own time, if they choose.”
However, the mechanism is in place should the CofE wish to opt in at a later date.
“Every religious organisation effectively has a mechanism to do this, to perform same sex marriages. In the case of the Church of England, they could… introduce an amending canon that would effectively amend canon law, and bring forward a measure which would effectively amend the book of Common Prayer and the Marriage Act,” Grant explains. “The measure would then be subject to Parliamentary approval, [but] if they changed their mind they can do it and that is important for them to be able to do if they want to.”
If that sounds like encouragement, Grant is quick to make clear that “it’s not for us, the Government or the State, to be telling them what to do. It’s a matter for them, but everybody has their particular method”.
The issue will no doubt be debated at length in the Commons, but there is a suggestion that for PR purposes the Tory hierarchy are keen to get the Bill taken off the floor of the House – where it would be debated in the full glare of the TV cameras – and tucked away into a committee room.
“There is going to be plenty of opportunity for this matter to be thoroughly debated,” Grant insists. “There are a number of days put down in Committee so it’s going to be gone through line by line by line until everybody has had the opportunity to make all the comments they want to make on it.”
But in the Commons Chamber, or a few floors up in a distant committee room? Grant won’t commit.
“These decisions aren’t for me and I will do my work and take this Bill through and debate it and put forward the clauses wherever I am asked to do it,” is her straight-batted reply.
Whatever shape its journey through the Commons takes, some say the Bill will be savaged when it reaches the Lords. Grant refuses to be drawn on the attitudes of the Upper House.
“I don’t know. I’m not sure. It’s a very special place, the House of Lords, and they do sometimes take a different view to legislation when it gets there, so I await with interest. We’ll have to wait and see,” she replies, before diplomatically describing a “ very thoughtful House, a very careful House…it will be thoroughly scrutinised and debated.”
Or perhaps the Lords and Ladies will prove to be a more socially liberal lot then they get credit for? Grant smiles and answers cagily: “Who knows? I’m not going to call that one.”
But what about the views of Helen Grant herself? She has ministerial duties to perform, but does the concept of same sex marriage sit comfortably with her own beliefs? Religion is important to her. In fact, she’s a member of the Church of England.
“I am a God-fearing woman,” Grant states. “My faith is very fundamental to everything I do and think. I am member of the Church of England, a Christian, and my faith is very, very important to me.”
And despite the CofE’s opt-out, Grant insists her faith sits easily with the idea of same sex marriage.
“I think it’s absolutely consistent with my beliefs. For me, as a Christian, I see it as about justice, equality, fairness, ending discrimination and opening up marriage to more people on the basis that marriage is a very special institution. It’s an amazing institution. We shouldn’t be stopping people from getting married unless there’s a very good reason, and being gay, lesbian, bisexual is not one of them.”
One person who might disagree is Ann Widdecombe – Grant’s predecessor as MP for Maidstone and the Weal.
Widdecombe, a Catholic and a champion of the socially conservative cause, “hasn’t phoned me up about the matter” but Grant is seeing her at an event in the coming days and “if we have time we will have a chat about it, probably…”.
And if they do, then Helen Grant will no doubt calmly, and confidently, explain why she backs the changes to marriage.
For while she may be a Christian, and an MP in solidly Tory Kent, Grant is an original convert to David Cameron’s determination to modernise the party. In fact, until Cameron became Tory leader, Grant was a member of the Labour Party. “Only for a few weeks… well, for a few months, a few years ago. I just made a mistake…” she says when reminded of her former political stripes, before spelling out why she became a Tory. “He [Cameron] had a sense of fairness, a clarity of vision... he recognised there was a whole generation of people who worked hard and wanted to do well, but also believed in social justice. And I do, I hate injustice, I do not handle it well.”
It sounds like a warning to the opponents of same sex marriage, currently preparing their arguments for Tuesday’s debate. They should tread carefully – the former Judo champion is ready to fight.
“I think that could cause a stir or two if I did an O Goshi or Tomo Nagae on someone over the Despatch Box… it would certainly make the front pages,” Grant smiles. “I think it’s got to be mind over matter…”
She knows that the idea of same sex marriage will provoke plenty of defensive postures on the Tory benches, but Helen Grant will need more than a few well executed single arm shoulder throws to win over her party colleagues. The average judo bout lasts for around five minutes. When the fight over gay marriage begins on Tuesday, it will continue for far, far longer.