The Prime Minister faced a rebellion over the issue of gay marriage rights on Tuesday when 136 Tory MPs, including two Cabinet ministers and six junior ministers, voted against plans to allow homosexuals to marry in England and Wales.
Despite the issue being a free vote, Mr Cameron has made it a key plank in modernising the Conservative party. Behind the scenes, he had tried to force MPs from his ranks not to vote against the change.
Before the vote, Windsor MP Adam Afriyie had been touted as a stalking-horse candidate against the Prime minister.
Former children’s minister Tim Loughton has been mentioned as another possible contender.
Friends close to Mr Loughton have said that he was sacked in the September ministerial reshuffle because he refused to support gay marriage and he impressed many with his speech in the debate.
One Tory MP said: “Tim was a really good minister whose career was wrecked because of his stance on this issue on a matter of principle.
“It shows that, already, this bill is poisoning the party and destroying careers. It would not surprise me if he could be persuaded to stand as a stalking-horse candidate. He is widely respected among his colleagues.”
Another MP said: “The fact that the result was still 136 against to 127 in favour [among Tory MPs] after those tactics just goes to show that the Prime Minister has lost his authority.”
It was announced last night that the by-election for disgraced former Cabinet minister Huhne’s seat will take place on 28 February. Huhne admitted perverting the course of justice this week over claims his former wife took speeding points for him more than a decade ago.
Sources said it was unlikely that Mr Cameron would face a challenge unless the party had a poor by-election result in Eastleigh. But one Tory MP said: “If the party comes third in Eastleigh, there will almost certainly be a challenge.”
Another added that even if the Tories win the seat, Mr Cameron “will still need to avoid disaster in the European Parliament elections next year”.
The issue came up at Prime Minister’s Questions, where Mr Cameron hailed the 400 to 175 vote in favour of gay marriage across the House.
He said the vote would “be seen not just as making sure there is a proper element of equality, but also helping us to build a stronger and fairer society”.
Mr Cameron faced a call from backbench Tory MP Christopher Chope, who voted against gay marriage, for heterosexual couples to be given an equal right with homosexuals to enter into civil partnerships.
Mr Cameron rebuffed the proposal, telling Mr Chope: “Frankly, I am a marriage man. I am a great supporter of marriage – I want to promote marriage, defend marriage, encourage marriage.”
Despite the threat of rebellion behind the scenes, critics of Mr Cameron remained publicly loyal. One rebel, Sir Roger Gale, said: “I think we can ameliorate the worst of the effects of the proposed legislation.”
Another rebel, Mark Pritchard, said he expected “ongoing discussions over the progress of the bill”, but denied disagreement among Conservative MPs had “caused long-lasting division” or that there had been “fundamental damage to the Prime Minister”.