David Cameron got his way as gay marriage legislation cleared its first hurdle in the Commons last night – but saw his party split down the middle.
After the Prime Minister made a last-ditch appeal for support, the House backed the proposals by a big margin of 400 to 175.
However, with Labour and Liberal Democrats strongly in favour, it was clear that scores of Tories had taken advantage of the free vote to register their opposition. The Labour Whips office suggested that 139 Tories had voted against the Bill, with 132 in favour. Dozens more did not vote.
The result followed more than six hours of stormy debate on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. Culture Secretary Maria Miller said it would make Britain “a fairer place to live”, and insisted religious organisations which did not want to conduct gay marriages had protection. But Tory MPs lined up to condemn the measures – including the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee Graham Brady, who said he had “serious misgivings” over assurances on religious freedom.
Former defence minister Sir Gerald Howarth said that the Government had no mandate for such a “massive social and cultural change”, which was not mentioned in the Conservative manifesto for the 2010 election.
Speaking in Downing Street less than two hours before the crunch vote, Mr Cameron accepted that there were “strong views on both sides of the argument”.
But he said: “I am a strong believer in marriage. It helps people commit to each other and I think it is right that gay people should be able to get married too. This is, yes, about equality. But it is also about making our society stronger.
“I know there are strong views on both sides of the argument – I accept that. But I think this is an important step forward for our country.”
Mr Cameron did not attend the debate, but Downing Street had indicated that he would be voting.
Labour leader Ed Miliband said: ‘‘This is a proud day and an important step forward in the fight for equality in Britain. The overwhelming majority of Labour MPs supported this change to make sure marriage reflects the value we place on long-term, loving relationships whoever you love.
“Equal marriage builds on Labour’s successes in government which include the repeal of Section 28, equalising the age of consent, the introduction of civil partnerships and changes to the rules governing adoption.”
Before the vote, Salisbury’s Tory MP John Glen questioned the politics of the move: “By a factor of a least 30 to one my constituents have expressed their opposition to this. Those that are indifferent or in favour of the change are unlikely to change their vote over it. But the level of disappointment of a much larger minority, as witnessed by the 635,000 who have signed the coalition for marriage petition, is keenly felt and will, in my view, be a highly motivated electoral minority in future elections.”
Former minister Edward Leigh said the plans were an affront to many traditional Conservatives.
“We should be in the business of protecting cherished institutions and our cultural heritage otherwise what, I ask, is a Conservative Party for?
“Indeed, we are alienating people who have voted for us for all their lives, leaving them with no one to vote for.”
Tory former defence minister Sir Gerald Howarth said the legislation was a “massive change” which “deeply affects the core fabric of our society through the challenge it poses to the whole institution of marriage”.
Conservative Sir Roger Gale (North Thanet) said: “It is not possible to redefine marriage. Marriage is the union between a man and a woman, has been historically, remains so. It is Alice in Wonderland territory, Orwellian almost, for any government of any political persuasion to seek to come along and try to re-write the lexicon. It will not do.”
Sir Roger stressed he did not subscribe to the notion, but said he recognised the merit in the argument. But Conservative former justice minister Nick Herbert, who is gay, said: “I know that the signal we send today about whether the law fully recognises the place of gay people in our society will really matter.”