LEGISLATION to allow gay marriage in England and Wales cleared a major hurdle in the Commons last night – in a vote that split the Conservative Party down the middle.
After Prime Minister David Cameron made a last-ditchappeal for support, MPs backed the proposals by the substantial 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.
More Conservative MPs voted against the bill than in favour, by 139 to 134, with many ministers also opposed. Another five MPs voted in both division lobbies, the traditional way of registering an abstention.
Mr Cameron has made gay marriage a key issue in the modernisation of the party, telling the party conference in 2011: “I don’t support gay marriagedespite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative.”
Speaking in Downing Street less than two hours before the vote, Mr Cameron accepted 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 think this is an important step forward for our country.”
The vote 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 that did not want to conduct gaymarriages had protection.
But Tory MPs lined up to condemn the measures, including the chairman of the back-bench 1922 Committee, Graham Brady, who said he had “serious misgivings” over assurances onreligious freedom.
Former defence minister Sir Gerald Howarth said 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.
He added: “I am not a Tory moderniser, for I believe that marriage can only be between a man and woman, and I shall not surrender my principles.”
Another MP, Christopher Chope, said he “opposed the bill because I am a Conservative”. Salisbury Tory John Glen questioned the politics of the move: “By a factor of at least 30 to one, my constituents have expressed their opposition to this.
Many Tory members, supported by several Labour figures, were unconvinced by the safeguards protecting the Church of England and Church of Wales against being forced to accept gay marriage.
Others said the bill would redefine marriage in an unacceptable way. However, there were supporters on the Tory benches for the changes, including a late conversion from Mark Menzies, a Scot who represents Flyde in Lancashire. He said he had intended to abstain, but changed his mind.
Former policing and criminal justice minister Nick Herbert, a leading gay MP, said entering into a civil partnership was the most important thing he had done in his life.
He said: “Marriage is one of the most important institutions in our society – it concerns many of us that it is in decline. Yet while many move away from marriage, one group turnstowards it.”
Other Tory MPs warned the bill would get bogged down in the Lords. If it is blocked, the Commons will not be allowed to overturn a vote, because the issue was not in either governing party’s manifesto or thecoalition agreement.
Sir Roger Gale also predicted the bill would end up before the courts and “people of faith will find that faith being trampled upon”.
Following the vote, 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.”
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond and Attorney General Dominic Grieve abstained, as did SNP members, because gay marriage legislation for Scotland is going through Holyrood.
While most Labour MPs backed the bill, there were prominent opponents, including a number of Scottish MPs even though it does not apply north of the Border.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: “I genuinely believe that we will look back on today as a landmark for equality in Britain. No matter who you are and who you love, we are all equal. Marriage is about love and commitment, and it should no longer be denied to people just because they are gay.
“I am proud that the Liberal Democrats are part of the coalition government that are making it happen.”