Even by the standards of the dramatic and abrupt reversals of Boris Johnson’s government, dropping the ban on conversion therapy was staggering.
It felt like yet another concession to right-wing Tory MPs and traditionalists in the party, abandoning policies they dislike in the prime minister’s desperate bid to cling to power after ‘partygate’.
Yet hours later, it’s not quite a U-turn on a U-turn, but a step back: Downing Street said that the government will ban gay conversion therapy after all, but not trans conversion therapy.
The latest U-turn followed other measures to please the right, such as the abrupt end to 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 promises in what insiders have called “Operation Red Meat” and “Save Big Dog”, have included a threat to scrap BBC licensing fees, tougher action on Channel crossings and upgrade promises.
The U-turn on conversion therapy came less than 24 hours after Equality Minister Mike Freer told MPs in the Commons: ‘We remain fully committed to bringing forward proposals to ban conversion therapy practices .”
What is conversion therapy?
Also called healing therapy or restorative therapy, conversion therapy refers to any form of treatment or psychotherapy aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation or removing their gender identity.
Therapy and prayer can be used, while more extreme forms can include “exorcisms, physical abuse and starvation”, said Jayne Ozanne, a former government equality adviser.
LGBT charity Stonewall says conversion therapy is based on the assumption that being lesbian, gay, bi or trans is a mental illness that can be “cured”.
The NHS and other professional bodies have warned that all forms of conversion therapy are “unethical and potentially dangerous”.
Minutes later, Mr Freer even reiterated his promise to Caroline Nokes, who chairs the women’s and equalities select committee, who has called for legislation ahead of a government conference on LGBT issues this summer.
“I can give the commitment that the government remains committed to bringing the legislation forward…a bill team has been assembled and we are moving at pace,” he told her.
One can only imagine the reaction of the unfortunate Mr Freer hours later when he learned that a leaked document from Downing Street stated: ‘The Prime Minister has agreed that we should not go ahead with a legislation banning LGBT conversion therapy.”
Yes, that’s right: the same prime minister who launched PMQs by telling Tory MP Jamie Wallis after he came out as transgender: ‘I know the House is on your side and will give you the support you need to live freely as yourself.”
The last twist
Now, in the latest twist, the government is insisting it will include the legislation in the Queen’s Speech on May 10. Labor MPs claim Tory MPs who support a ban texted the Prime Minister because they were ashamed of the decision to drop a ban.
Shambolic? This is what it looks like.
The ban on conversion therapy, first proposed in 2018, was championed by Henry Newman, a close friend of the Prime Minister’s wife Carrie, and a former Downing Street aide who was purged during the cleanup from No. 10 at the height of the party crisis.
Carrie, let’s not forget, spoke at a meeting on the sidelines of the Conservative conference last year and claimed her husband was “completely committed” to expanding LGBT rights.
It’s no surprise, then, that the leaked Downing Street document predicted a ‘vociferous reaction’ and even advised Mr Freer – who, through no fault of his own, looked like an idiot right – could resign. Indeed it can!
When a ban on conversion therapy was promised in the Queen’s Speech last year, the government said “these heinous practices” can cause mental and physical harm.
Announcing the U-turn, the government said it would examine “how the existing law can be deployed more effectively” and explore “other non-legislative measures”.
As expected, the U-turn certainly provoked a “noisy reaction”, from LGBT activists and MPs from all parties. But opponents of the Tory bench ban were quick to gloat and celebrate a significant victory.
When the Prime Minister was weakest at the party door in January, 30 Tory MPs wrote to Mr Johnson urging him not to rush into new legislation.
MPs reportedly included Damian Green, former First Secretary of State, Jackie Doyle-Price, a former Health Minister, Sir Robert Syms, a former Whip, Ben Bradley, a former Tory Deputy Speaker, and members of the Rentrée 2019 from the curators.
“We are deeply concerned that recent government proposals could criminalize legitimate therapies for children with gender dysphoria,” the MPs wrote.
“What’s being proposed could have significant unintended consequences for children and could lead parents, therapists and teachers – who are trying to help children understand why they say they are transgender – to face lawsuits. .
“We should listen to and learn from each other as we legislate in this sensitive area, not rush things into legal texts without debate.
“Much can be gained if we have more debate and scrutiny, but there are serious risks and consequences for children, parents, teachers and therapists if we give in to calls for legislation to be rushed and truncate consideration of these issues.”
Now claiming victory, former right-wing Brexit minister and government critic Lord Frost tweeted: “Brave but correct move. Well done HMG. Would have been a hugely contentious legislative and process minefield .”
It is worth recalling that in January, demanding policy changes, Lord Frost called on the Prime Minister to sack ‘neo-socialists, green fanatics and the pro-revival mob’ in No 10, in what has was seen as an attack on advisers such as Mr Newman, and the influence of Carrie Johnson as the Prime Minister fought to save his job.
Evidence from the past 24 hours suggests the Tory right may have won the first round in the battle over conversion therapy, but Lord Frost’s “neo-socialists, green fanatics and pro-reawakening crowd” seem to have retaliated in the second round.