Tory MPs will plunge deeper into civil war later when the party splits over David Cameron’s plans to allow gay marriage.
More than 100 Conservative MPs are expected to defy the Prime Minister in a vote on the bitterly controversial Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill.
Although the Bill will get a second reading with Labour and Liberal Democrat support, it is possible that more than half the Tories’ 305 MPs could vote against it.
That would be hugely damaging for the Prime Minister, coming amid a febrile atmosphere of plotting against him and claims that hundreds of Tory activists are deserting the party in protest.
All three major parties have allowed a free vote on the Bill. Around 20 Labour MPs, a few Lib Dems and the Democratic Unionist Party’s MPs are also expected to vote against.
But the Tories are potentially even more divided on gay marriage than they are on Europe, with party activists as well as Conservative MPs publicly clashing over the proposals to allow same sex couples to marry.
At least two members of the Cabinet, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and Welsh Secretary David Jones, are expected to vote against the proposals and two more, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond and Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, may abstain.
And in a bizarre twist ahead of the vote, gay Tory activist and pundit Iain Dale has claimed that the Conservative MPs threatening to vote against the Bill include several “closet-case gays” including “two supposedly heterosexual MPs who I know to be conducting gay affairs”.
But in a defiant warning to the Bill’s opponents, Equalities minister Maria Miller said on the eve of the debate: “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 of the Bill, telling gay magazine Attitude: “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.
“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.”
And in a fightback against activists who oppose the Bill, the Conservative Party’s most senior volunteer, Paul Swaddle, president of the National Convention, was one of more than 50 senior figures who signed a 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.”
But Liberal Democrat MP John Pugh broke ranks and declared that he intended to vote against gay marriage, insisting there was a “good liberal case” against the move.
In an open letter to constituents, he said his fundamental objection was that the legislation “achieves none of its objectives and weakens the link between marriage and the family”.
“It is my view that the benefits of the gay marriage proposal over and above civil partnership legislation are marginal and the risks considerable,” the Roman Catholic MP said.
“It draws government (the state) into a whole new series of debatable judgments and rulings on sexual, personal and religious behaviour.
“Far from being permissive in effect, it could herald the advent of ever more arbitrary prescription as we forget why the state legislates at all in this deeply personal aspect of life.”
Labour leader Ed Miliband said he would “proudly” vote in favour and would actively urge his MPs to join him in making “an important step forward in the fight for equality in Britain”.
And shadow chancellor Ed Balls admitted he admired the Prime Minister for proposing same sex marriage.
“I think it’s brave and he’s divided his party in quite a deep way,” Mr Balls told ITV’s Agenda. “It’s not clear why from a Conservative Party point of view he’s chosen to do this.
“The economy’s in a mess, we need a jobs plan and he’s chosen this issue. But in 50 years time we’ll look back and say, ‘Did we really have a debate where we said your sexuality will decide whether you could get married or not?”‘
Speaking just hours before the debate, Yvette Cooper MP, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Women Equalities, said: “As more and more Conservative MPs come out against equal marriage, the important issue of equality and respect for same sex relationships must not get lost in the debate on Tory internecine warfare.
“Couples who love each other and want to make a long term commitment should be able to get married whatever their gender or sexuality. Marriage should be reason to celebrate not discriminate.”
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Article source: http://news.sky.com/story/1047596