Conservative opponents of gay marriage have invited the House of Lords to reject the bill after 133 Tory MPs, including two cabinet ministers, defied David Cameron to vote against the measure.
As a Tory grassroots organisation warned of a “civil war in conservatism”, prompted in part by the legislation, more than half of the Conservative parliamentary party voted against the bill after one ministerial aide complained of a “sham consultation” process.
Owen Paterson, the environment secretary, David Jones, the Wales secretary, and the prime minister’s “envoy” to the right, John Hayes, led a group of ministers who formed a 133-strong bloc of Tory MPs who voted against the bill. A further two Tories acted as tellers for the opponents, whose numbers fell from the 135 no votes at the second reading in February. But the opponents were more numerous than the 126 Tory MPs who voted in favour of the bill, which was given a third reading by 366 to 161, a majority of 205.
The vote came after David Burrowes, the Conservative MP for Enfield Southgate, who is Paterson’s parliamentary private secretary, said that peers had every right to oppose the bill because it was not included in the coalition agreement and was not promoted clearly in any of the party election manifestos.
His comments came after Peter Bone, the Conservative MP for Wellingborough, said: “The unusual position we have is none of the political parties put this in their manifesto. Would [you] agree that [the House of Lords] has the complete legitimacy to reject this bill because there is no Salisbury Convention?” This says that peers cannot reject legislation pledged in a winning election manifesto.
Burrowes said: “I am grateful. Certainly the other place is looking in great detail at the way we have handled this bill.” He added: “We are in an extraordinary position on the third reading of a bill which redefines marriage, one that I never thought our government would have done, one where there was no clear manifesto commitment, no coalition agreement, no green paper – just a sham consultation.”
The MP said he feared for people who feel uncomfortable about the bill. “Intolerant reaction to our belief in marriage runs the risk of becoming fomented by the state orthodoxy in this bill about this new gender neutral meaning of marriage. Those who disagree risk vilification and discrimination and they won’t get the protection they deserve under the equality act.”
But other Tories spoke in favour of the bill. Charles Walker, the MP for Broxtowe, said: “I didn’t come into politics to be defined by what I am against. I want to be defined by what I am for. And tonight is a good night.”
The bill moved to a third reading after a final threat was removed when Labour withdrew its support for an amendment to allow humanist wedding ceremonies to be included in the bill’s provisions. The government had warned this could over-complicate the bill and threaten its parliamentary journey. It was a similar warning that prompted Labour on Monday to drop its support for an amendment that would have extended civil partnerships to heterosexual couples.
In her concluding remarks the equalities minister, Maria Miller, pleaded with MPs to support the bill. She said: “I accept that for some colleagues their beliefs mean that the principle of this issue is an insurmountable barrier to supporting this change. But to other colleagues I say, now is the time.
“Let us not be side-tracked nor distracted. Let us not expand the remit of this bill beyond its original intention. Let us make equal marriage possible because it is the right thing to do and then let us move on.”
But Tory divisions were highlighted as it emerged that the arch-Eurosceptic John Redwood is to be given a formal role in helping to formulate the prime minister’s economic policy. Downing Street has decided that a series of policy groups run by the backbench 1922 committee should report to the prime minister’s policy board. This means that Redwood, who chairs the 1922 economic committee and who unsuccessfully challenged John Major for the Tory leadership in 2005 over Europe, will have a formal input into the prime minister’s policy board on economics.
One rightwinger praised Downing Street for deciding to include the 1922 policy groups in its work. The MP said: “Credit where credit is due. Downing Street is trying hard to reach out. It really is time to end the Tory civil wars. We can’t stop gay marriage, we have got a referendum on the EU so we should just get on with it and support the prime minister.”
But the Conservative Grassroots organisation warned that Cameron would pay a high price for pressing ahead with gay marriage and for refusing to launch an investigation into the remarks by the Tory co-chairman, Lord Feldman, who was alleged to have called party activists “mad swivel-eyed loons”.
Feldman has strenuously denied making the remarks.
Miles Windsor, chairman of Conservative Grassroots, said: “This week has begun a civil war in conservatism, it may rumble on for years – but as things stand, Nigel Farage is winning it at a stride.”