Cameron faces down rebels on gay marriage
Conservative constituency association chairmen hand in a petition on gay marriage legislation to 10 Downing Street.
Conservative leader could see landmark law pass without party majority, writes MARK HENNESSY,London Editor
Legislation to let same-sex couples marry in England and Wales, rather than just sign up to civil partnerships, will pass its first House of Commons vote tomorrow: that much is not in doubt.
However, prime minister David Cameron could face seeing the landmark change occur without even managing to get a majority of Conservative MPs to back his plans.
Last night there was fevered speculation in the Commons that up to 180 of his backbenchers could vote against or abstain, while many Conservative constituency associations are in tumult.
The prime minister’s mother, Mary, a former magistrate, opposes the legislation, telling friends at a lunch last month: “David just won’t be told.”
However, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill will pass easily, with the backing of most if not all Labour MPs, along with the majority of the smaller parties, except for the Democratic Unionist Party.
All MPs have been given a free vote – an easy matter for Labour’s Ed Miliband since most Labour MPs approve of the legislation. A whipped vote would have been an impossibility for Cameron.
Under the legislation gay couples will be able to marry, while those already registered in civil partnerships will be able to upgrade their unions.
Religious bodies that want to solemnise such unions – Quakers or liberal Jews, for example – will be able to do so, while those that do not will be legally protected, ministers have said.
The Church of England and its counterpart in Wales will be formally banned from doing so.
Such a restriction is necessary, say ministers, because the clergy in both churches have a common-law duty to marry parishioners – an obligation no other religion faces.
For months, MPs and campaigners have argued about the definition of marriage. For one side, marriage is immutable. For the other, the terms of marriage have changed down the centuries.
The common-law definition that it is “the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others” dates back to an 1866 ruling by Lord Penzance in Hyde v Hyde, though that judgment dealt with a divorce petition in a potential but not actual case of polygamy.
Defending his stand, Mr Cameron told last year’s Conservative Party conference: “I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.”
Cameron is genuinely committed to the change, but there is politics, too, since a revolt among his own sends a message to voters that he is dragging his people to the centre ground of British politics.
In the 1980s the Conservatives were seen negatively for passing Clause 28, which barred local authorities from doing that would be seen as promoting homosexuality.
The difficulty for Cameron, however, is that some who oppose the legislation – many of them politically aligned to him – do so very strongly, while those in favour of it are either lukewarm in their support or unlikely to back the Conservatives for making the change.
Pollster Peter Kellner rejected the fear of a flight from the Conservatives. “The proportion of Tories who (a) regard gay marriage as a vote-determining issue and (b) oppose reform is just 4 per cent – not one in five but one in 25, or barely 1 per cent of the total electorate,” he said.
Defections at grassroots level would hurt the Conservatives. On Sunday, more than two dozen past and present constituency association chairs handed in a protest petition to 10 Downing Street, a gesture dismissed by former minister Peter Bottomley, who said: “Twenty-five out of 2,000-3,000 does not strike me as being newsworthy.”
However, Cameron is already in trouble with some of his MPs: there has been febrile talk of a leadership challenge, while economic difficulties and Conservatives’ hatred of coalition with anyone, let alone the Liberal Democrats, have put many Conservative MPs in foul tempers.
However, voters rarely see more than the top-line image political parties create, deliberately or unwittingly. Cameron wants that to be of a Conservative Party representing the 21st century.
The danger is that the public sees another image, that of a party divided, arguing about an issue that the public, whatever opinions they have, will not fight over.