This week marks seven years since David Cameron was elected leader of the Conservative party, and he has celebrated the occasion by making an announcement that will certainly keep things lively among his MPs and grassroots. Joe Murphy reports in the Standard today that he will allow religious groups to host same-sex weddings in their places of worship.
The Prime Minister made clear this lunchtime that he would allow a free vote, appearing on the lunchtime news to say:
‘I’m a massive supporter of marriage and I don’t want gay people to be excluded from a great institution. But let me be absolutely 100% clear, if there is any church or any synagogue or any mosque that doesn’t want to have a gay marriage it will not, absolutely must not, be forced to hold it. That is absolutely clear in the legislation. Also let me make clear, this is a free vote for Members of Parliament but personally I will be supporting it.’
Labour has already said it will place a three-line whip on a vote to introduce civil marriage for same-sex couples, but a source I spoke to today said: ‘We simply have not made a decision yet.’ The party will wait for the PM to unveil details to MPs next week before deciding how to approach a vote allowing religious ceremonies as well.
The free vote for the Tories is essential if the PM is to avoid uproar in his party, especially as there are cabinet members and other senior ministers who oppose the plan. But as Peter Bone tells the Standard, the issue won’t just divide the party, it will ‘outrage millions of people and hugely damage the government in electoral terms’.
Tory MP Stewart Jackson tells me:
‘Surely this will be killed in the House of Lords. They have no mandate, and the government cannot use the Parliament Act as this wasn’t in the manifesto.’
Nick Clegg has been pushing for the legislation to be extended to religious institutions who choose it for some time. The reason Cameron has acquiesced is also partly because those drawing up the legislation warned they could not exclude religious institutions from the Bill. The big test for those Tories who are wavering is whether those locks that the PM is pushing for which will prevent organisations such as the Church of England – the new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has already made clear that while he wants a respectful dialogue with gay marriage campaigners, he does oppose the plan – from being forced to conduct same-sex ceremonies against its will.