Cameron faces rebellion over gay marriage

2013-05-20 20:12
(File, AFP)

(File, AFP)

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London - British Prime Minister David Cameron faced new splits within his Conservative Party on Monday as a divisive bill to legalise gay marriage returned to parliament.

The bill was approved by a comfortable 225-vote majority when it was last debated despite the opposition of almost half of Conservative lawmakers.

But dozens of disgruntled MPs are expected to deliver a blow to Cameron's agenda by backing an amendment saying that if gay couples are allowed to marry, then heterosexual couples should also be able to have civil partnerships.

The main opposition Labour Party, while it backs gay marriage, has hinted that it could join the Conservative rebels, because it argues that the government has failed to make a convincing case against extending civil partnerships.

Cameron's Downing Street office called it a "wrecking amendment" which could delay the passing of the gay marriage bill by up to two years and cost £4bn in pension changes.

The delay would come because the government would need to work on the joint implementation of new rights for gay married couples and heterosexual couples in new civil partnerships.

Referendum pressure

Lawmakers are allowed a free vote on gay marriage, meaning they are not required to follow party directions, because it is considered an issue of conscience.

While Cameron, several senior party colleagues and his Liberal Democrat coalition junior partners back the bill legalising gay marriage, large sections of his party are fiercely opposed to the idea.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, warned against attempts to "hijack" proposals to legalise same-sex marriage.

It comes at a time when Cameron is already under pressure from a large section of his fractious centre-right party over his stance on a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union.

Grassroots Conservative supporters fear that with a general election two years away, Cameron's support for gay marriage is driving Tory voters to the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which had its best ever electoral performance last month when it made gains in local elections.

A letter signed by more than 30 current and former Conservative local association chairmen and handed to Cameron on Sunday gave an indication of the bitterness felt by some in his party.

Waste of time

They accused him of "treating the membership with contempt" over the issue.

"You have failed thus far to keep the manifesto promise you made to recognise and incentivise marriage through a tax break for married couples," it said.

"The bill could cost us the election... therefore, prime minister, for the sake of the well-being of the country and the integrity and future success of the party, we urge you not to continue with your policy of re-defining marriage," it urged.

Culture Minister Maria Miller, who has responsibility for steering the legislation through parliament, has said she wants same-sex couples to be able to marry as early as the middle of next year.

But last week, Defence Minister Philip Hammond, a senior Conservative, suggested that the bill was a waste of parliamentary time.

"There is a real sense of anger among many people who are married that any government thinks it has the ability to change the definition of an institution like marriage," Hammond said.

France joins legal club

The vote comes after a member of Cameron's inner circle fiercely denied claims that he had branded grassroot party members as "mad, swivel-eyed loons".

Party co-chairperson Lord Andrew Feldman, a schoolmate of Cameron's at the elite Eton College, has strenuously denied rumours linking him with the statement and said he was considering legal action.

Conservative backbenchers' fears over the rise of UKIP prompted around 114 Tory MPs last week to back a motion in parliament expressing regret that the coalition government's plans for the year contained no guarantee of a referendum on EU membership.

France on Saturday became the 14th country to legalise gay marriage when Socialist President Francois Hollande signed it into law, despite fierce protests from the main opposition right-wing UMP party.

Read more on:    david cameron  |  gay rights

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