A gay marriage row is threatening to tear the Tory Party apart in a key West Country marginal constituency.
Edmund Costelloe, chairman of Somerton and Frome Constituency Conservative Association, has announced he is quitting the party after 49 years over David Cameron’s stance on gay marriage.
And just hours later, the Western Daily Press learned that gay millionaire businessman Ivan Massow, who made a fortune from selling insurance tailored for the gay market and previously defected to Labour, has applied to be the Conservative candidate for the constituency.
The seat is on a Tory hit list for the next general election, after it was won from Tory Mark Robinson in 1997 by Liberal Democrat David Heath, who has a majority of 1,819.
Mr Cameron wants churches in England and Wales to be allowed to conduct such marriage ceremonies, but would not force any groups to hold ceremonies in their places of worship.
Mr Costelloe said yesterday he had no idea that Mr Massow had put his name forward and stressed that his decsion to quit was a matter of principle on gay marriage.
Mr Costelloe said “virtually everyone” in the party with whom he had discussed the issue was opposed to gay marriage.
In his resignation speech to the association, Mr Costelloe said: “I have always been a Conservative through and through and this still stands. What has changed is the leadership’s undebated and ill-thought-out attack on marriage between a man and a woman for the procreation of children.
“David Cameron and a group of colleagues have utterly lost touch with the grassroots of the Conservative Party, the majority of whom are outraged by this attack on natural and historic family values.
“The Prime Minister justifies this spontaneous policy change by saying marriage is so good it should be extended to same-sex couples.
“Meanwhile, the urgent need to address the anomaly of low-income married parents being better off tax-wise if separated, and the lack of legal safeguards for single mothers in stable relationships should their partner die, remains unaddressed.
“Civil partnerships are vital to give equal legal status, as well as tax and inheritance rights to same-sex partnerships, but the word ‘marriage’ will for me always mean society’s endorsement of a man and a woman joining in matrimony for the procreation of children.”
Mr Massow grew up at East Coker, near Yeovil, and lived in Frome for ten years. His mother lives near Glastonbury. Although London-based, he said is still often in the area visiting his family and it is understood that he would move to the constituency if he became the candidate.
His remarkable rags-to-riches story includes being fostered and then adopted as a child.
He launched his insurance business in his 20s from a squat with just £5,000, and has gone on to restructure Cancer Research UK’s funding. A life-long Conservative, he was an adviser on equality and inclusivity to William Hague when Mr Hague was the party leader.
When contacted by the Western Daily Press, Mr Massow said: “I am in favour of gay marriage because I think the party and society need to be inclusive.
“I am sympathetic to people’s views who are nervous of change and have lots of close friends who are anti gay marriage and we agree to disagree. It is one of those emotive, totemic issues which are almost there to divide people.
“I have lived in the constituency and love it. I think there is a lot of progressive thinking there, in addition to more conservative people, and I think I can span the divide.
“I would class myself as one of the architects of the new compassionate Conservatives. I have had quite successful businesses and I also grew up in the care system, and I feel I can communicate and empathise.”
Mr Mussow has also appeared in the Channel 4 series Secret Millionaire in which he went undercover on Edinburgh’s Pilton estate.