CONSERVATIVE anger over same-sex marriage plans will not prevent the UK government pushing ahead with legislation, Culture Secretary Maria Miller said yesterday.
In a staunch defence of the plans on the eve of a Commons vote which has split the party ranks, she said the legislation to allow gay marriage south of the Border was in line with the party’s “progressive” past on issues such as slavery.
At least 100 Tory MPs are expected to vote against the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill when it faces its first Commons hurdle today.
However, the proposals – personally championed by Prime Minister David Cameron – should pass easily, as they are backed by the majority of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs.
All three major parties have allowed a free “conscience” vote on the issue.
Similar legislation to allow gay marriage in Scotland is being considering by MSPs at Holyrood.
Conservative divisions were further laid bare yesterday when more than 50 senior activists issued a letter supporting the reform and warning opponents that they risked “alienating” ordinary voters.
It came in retort to a letter delivered to Downing Street on Sunday by more than 20 serving and former constituency chairmen, urging that the proposals be delayed until after 2015.
Ms Miller said it was “very important” to respect individuals’ beliefs and that there was “absolutely no pressure” on MPs to vote with the government.
But she added: “What I will not be doing is stopping the legislation moving forward. It’s important we have a fair approach to marriage. Simply being gay is not a good enough reason not to have that available.”
She went on: “Conservative governments have done things for generations which are progressive, all the way back to the position the party had on the slave trade.
“I think it is a natural progression for marriage, something that has evolved over centuries anyway.”
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling also spoke out in favour, telling gay magazine Attitude the move was a “sensible next step” in tackling homophobia in the UK.
“Changing a law has never automatically changed someone’s opinion or belief, but a change in law can result in a more supportive and protective environment,” he wrote.
Mr Grayling said social acceptance of homosexuality over the past two or three generations had seen “a real step forward”.
“The government’s proposals on the recognition of gay marriage are a sensible next step in that evolution. They make it clear that the attitudes of today’s generations are very different to those of the past.
“Of course we need to protect the right of the individual to have a conscience and of religious institutions to follow their own path. But that does not mean that the state has to do the same.”
The Conservative Party’s most senior volunteer, Paul Swaddle, president of the National Convention, was one of more than 50 senior figures who signed the letter backing the reforms.
“By opposing gay marriage outright, we risk alienating the voters we will need in 2015,” the letter said.
“To win, the Conservative Party must mount a broad appeal. We urge our MPs to listen to the wider views of their electorate as they decide how to vote.” Ahead of the first parliamentary vote on the reforms, the Rt Rev Justin Welby is prepared to face questions about the highly divisive issue.
Tories have been plunged into deep unrest by the proposals, which David Cameron has personally championed.
The Prime Minister is facing the prospect of some 180 members of his party, including a significant number of senior figures, opposing or abstaining in a vote on the changes today. Bishop Welby was formally confirmed in his new role at a ceremony in St Paul’s Cathedral yesterday.
A source told the Daily Telegraph: “He will say that marriage is between a man and a woman, and always has been.”
Lambeth Palace was keen to stress the view was standard Church of England policy and insisted the Archbishop was not planning to wade into the row by making any formal statements, but was simply ready to respond to any questions he was asked on the issue.
Tory activists claimed they felt “a sense of betrayal” over the Prime Minister’s “bulldozed-through” reforms and handed in a letter to No 10 urging Mr Cameron to rethink the plans.
The Scottish Government has drafted a similar proposal to legalise same-sex marriage in Scotland and launched a consultation on the bill last December.
Geoffrey Vero, chairman of the Conservative association in Surrey Heath where Education Secretary Michael Gove is MP, warned the move “may seriously affect David’s opportunity to get re-elected at 2015”.
But human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said Tory opponents did not represent most Conservative supporters.
He added: “Opposition to equal marriage by some Conservatives is reviving the ‘nasty party’ image and turning off voters. It undermines David Cameron’s attempt to detoxify the Tory brand and present a more caring, compassionate Conservatism.
Culture Secretary Maria Miller offered a staunch defence of the plans on the eve of a Commons vote, she said it was in line with the party’s “progressive” past on issues such as slavery and suggested the Conservative anger over the plans will not prevent the Government pushing ahead with legislation.
Former prime minister Gordon Brown said: “I understand the strong feelings in the current debate but I take the view that it is now timely to agree to end another source of discrimination by legalising the right to marriage and I will support the legislation in the UK Parliament and when it comes to the Scottish Parliament.”
The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which will also allow civil partners to convert their partnership to a marriage and enable married people to change their legal gender without having to end their union, has its second reading today.
Mr Cameron is giving his MPs a free vote on the Bill, which will avoid a technical rebellion, though the high numbers expected to oppose or abstain from within his party will still prove an embarrassment for the Prime Minister. Strong Liberal Democrat and Labour support means the Bill, however, will comfortably reach its next stage.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said he became a supporter of gay marriage “over the last couple of years” and suggested the change would become quickly accepted by the public.