Prime Minister David Cameron faced a backlash from Tory lawmakers over his plans to legalize gay marriage, highlighting growing dissatisfaction in his own party.
At least 100 Conservative members of Parliament -- out of 303 in total -- may oppose the legislation in a vote in the House of Commons in London today, even though Cameron has personally campaigned to allow same-sex marriages, according to newspapers and Tory lawmakers.
“People of faith will find that faith trampled upon and that to us is intolerable,” one Conservative lawmaker, Roger Gale, told the Commons. “It’s Alice in Wonderland territory, Orwellian almost, for a government of any persuasion to come along and try and rewrite the lexicon. It will not do.”
While Cameron gathered plaudits among his own lawmakers after pledging a referendum on the European Union last month, data the day after his speech showed the economy teetering on the edge of a triple-dip recession and opinion polls show the Tories trailing behind the Labour opposition. Conservative activists say gay marriage could cost the party enough votes to force it out of power at the 2015 general election.
“Gay marriage is the lens through which discontent with Cameron is channeled and magnified,” Mark Wickham-Jones, professor of politics at Bristol University, said in a telephone interview. “It’s a proxy for a deeper split.”
More than 20 current and former Conservative constituency chairmen delivered a letter to Cameron on Feb. 3 urging him to delay any decision on gay marriage. “Resignations from the party are beginning to multiply and we fear that, if enacted, this bill will lead to significant damage to the Conservative Party in the run-up to the 2015 election,” they said.
Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, neither of whom was in the House of Commons for the start of the debate on the bill today, say gay weddings should be allowed, and the measure is expected to get through, with their Liberal Democrat coalition partners and most of the Labour Party supporting it.
“This bill is about one thing, it’s about fairness, it’s about giving those who want to get married the opportunity to do so while protecting those who don’t agree with same-sex marriage,” Conservative Equalities Minister Maria Miller told lawmakers. “All couples who enter a lifelong commitment together should be able to call it marriage.”
The move is opposed by the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who said yesterday that marriage should remain “between a man and a woman.”
There will be a so called free vote on the legislation, meaning lawmakers will vote according to their consciences rather than having to follow the instructions of their party leaders. It means Cameron can argue that he has, technically, not faced a rebellion if his lawmakers do not back him. The largest revolt Cameron has faced was in July last year, when 91 Tories defied the leadership to vote against coalition plans to overhaul the upper, unelected House of Lords.
“Some Tories have deep concerns about gay marriage, but the issue is symptomatic of a wider concern about a leadership out of touch with its core support,” Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University London, said in a telephone interview. “The economic figures brought them down to earth with a bump, and many are now realizing how difficult it will be to win the election and wondering why they are alienating core voters.”
A ComRes Ltd. poll published last night found 34 percent of respondents saying the proposed law makes the Tories less appealing, against 15 percent who said it increased the appeal of the Conservatives. ComRes surveyed 2,050 adults between Feb. 1 and Feb. 3.
Nationally, the most recent YouGov Plc poll gave the Tories 30 percent support, 15 percentage points behind Labour. The survey of 1,712 adults was taken on Feb. 3 and Feb. 4.
The Mail on Sunday newspaper reported on Jan. 26 that Adam Afriyie, a rank-and-file Tory lawmaker, was planning to stand as a “stalking horse” candidate to challenge Cameron to a leadership contest.
The Conservatives lost a potential 20 extra seats at the next election in 2015 after being defeated in a Commons vote last week on proposed changes to parliamentary district boundaries. Some lawmakers blame Cameron for not insisting the change was non-negotiable in the coalition negotiations that formed the government in 2010. Even more blame their Liberal Democrat coalition partners for blocking the changes. They say that being in coalition means the Tory agenda is being sidelined.
Ministers have watered down a “quadruple lock” protecting religious organizations that do not want to conduct same-sex marriages and will allow the Church of England and the Church in Wales to make their own decisions on holding ceremonies.
The other three aspects of the lock remain, with religious organizations having to opt in to hold same-sex marriages, individual ministers having to be willing to conduct them and each individual place of worship needing to be registered to hold the ceremonies.
The common-law duty of vicars in the Church of England and Church in Wales to marry people in their parishes will not be extended to same-sex couples, Miller has said.
Quakers, Unitarians and some branches of Liberal Judaism have campaigned to hold same-sex marriages and are already permitted to hold civil partnerships for gay and lesbian couples in places of worship.
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