Prime Minister David Cameron won a vote to legalize gay marriage in England and Wales, aiming to fall into line with countries such as Spain and South Africa yet splitting his Tory party in the process.
Cameron only won the preliminary vote in the House of Commons in London last night 400 to 175 by relying on the support of his Liberal Democrat coalition partners and the opposition Labour Party. The bill, giving same-sex partnerships equal status with heterosexual marriage, may face defeat in the upper House of Lords or legal challenge from religious groups if it becomes law.
For the premier, bringing the issue to the Commons had the effect of dividing his Conservative Party. About 70 lawmakers from both sides made speeches in the debate, some citing religious concerns about the proposals, while a number of Tories expressed concern they were antagonizing the party’s socially conservative base. More than 130 of the 303 Tory lawmakers voted against the proposals, and the split highlights growing dissatisfaction in the party at Cameron’s leadership.
“We are alienating people who’ve voted for us for all of their lives, leaving them with no one to vote for,” Conservative lawmaker Edward Leigh said. “I will be voting tonight to proclaim my support for the future of our children and the essence of traditional marriage.”
There was a free vote on the legislation, meaning lawmakers voted 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 from his own side. The largest such revolt under Cameron was in July last year, when 91 Tories defied the leadership to vote against coalition plans to overhaul the unelected Lords chamber.
“People of faith will find that faith trampled upon and that to us is intolerable,” said Tory lawmaker Roger Gale. “It’s Alice in Wonderland territory, Orwellian almost, for any 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 indicate the Tories are trailing behind Labour.
Conservative activists say gay marriage may cost the party enough votes to force it out of power at the 2015 general election.
A ComRes Ltd. poll found 34 percent of respondents saying the proposed law makes the Tories less attractive to vote for, against 15 percent who said it increased their appeal. 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.
Some Tories pinned their hopes on the House of Lords throwing out the plans, as they were not in Cameron’s campaign program for the 2010 election, meaning there is no constitutional requirement on the upper house to respect the premier’s wishes.
“These proposals were not in our manifesto, are not in the coalition agreement and the prime minister ruled them out three days before the general election,” Tory lawmaker Christopher Chope said in the debate. He described the government’s management of the bill as “an obscenity” and said he wants the Lords to give it a “pretty bloody nose.”
The Conservatives lost a potential 20 extra seats at the next election in 2015 after being defeated by the Liberal Democrats and Labour in a Commons vote last week on proposed changes to electoral-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.
Even so, some Tory lawmakers backed Cameron. One, Mike Freer, who is gay, told the Commons that “sometimes leadership is about doing what is right, not what is popular.” His colleague Iain Stewart, who’s also homosexual, told lawmakers that “I look at the marriage my parents have had for 45 years and I aspire to the same thing,” and that he does “not understand why people feel threatened.”
Speaking for the government, Equalities Minister Maria Miller said the bill “is about fairness” and “giving those who want to get married the opportunity to do so whilst protecting the rights of those who don’t agree with same-sex marriage.”
The opposition Labour Party’s equalities spokeswoman, Yvette Cooper, agreed. “Couples who love each other should be able to get married regardless of their gender and sexuality and we should enjoy that and we should celebrate that,” she told lawmakers.
While some Tories fear that the party is alienating voters by voting against gay marriage, Margot James, a lesbian, said that the party could face electoral defeat like U.S. Republicans with a “socially conservative” agenda.
“We may have gone two steps forward, but I fear we may have gone one step backwards,” James said. “The modernization of the Conservative Party is not yet complete.”
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