By Joseph Willits
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According to today's sensationalist Independent front page, David Cameron is expected to face a serious rebellion from Tory MPs (allegedly of over 100 votes) against the Government's plans to allow civil marriage for gay and lesbian couples.
The numbers the Independent gives are said to be exaggerated, with only David Burrowes being named and quoted as being "cautiously optimistic" that Government proposals will be defeated due to a large Tory rebellion in the House of Commons.
While the Government has nothing to fear about failing to implement the proposed gay marriage legislation, the very discussion could prove dangerous to a Conservative party trying to shed its image of hostility towards the gay community. As Iain Dale has written today:
"There is nothing the media and the Labour Party love better than trying to make out the Conservative Party is still the 'nasty party".
Dale also wrote that he hoped "that the usual Labour suspects (Ben Bradshaw and Chris Bryant) will try to resist temptation".
Perhaps recognising potential rebellion on this issue, and keen to appease the more traditionalist wing of the party, Cameron has focused on the commitment of marriage as much as on gay equality itself. If any kind of rebellion on the Government's proposals does gain momentum, it will be a sign that the Prime Minister has is still battling to change his party's mind (even if he wins the vote) and, perhaps more importantly, failed to change his party's heart. This will be taken by critics on the left as a parable for a wider failure to modernise his party. At the Conservative party conference last year, Cameron stated:
"Yes, it's about equality, but it's also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don't support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I'm a Conservative."
Speaking to the Independent, Burrowes said there were worries that gay marriage would "fundamentally affect how marriage between a man and woman has historically been viewed in this country" and that "it would open up a can of worms and a legal minefield about freedom, religion and equalities legislation". However, consulation on the issue has not yet begun, and the official line from the Government states:
"There is no question of churches or any other religious institution being forced to host ceremonies for same-sex marriage or for civil partnerships."
There may be some misunderstanding among potential Tory rebels, that in the same way that Catholic adoption agencies (a public service) were not exempt from considering gay couples as prospective parents, churches will be forced to perform gay marriage ceremonies. But in fact there's a distinction between churches acting as churches (where they have wide exemptions from equalities legislation) and churches providing public services (where they don't). The marriage ceremony comes into the former category.
It is unfortunate that the Independent has chosen to make a big issue of a potential Tory rebellion that probably isn't going anywhere anyway – considering the progress the party has made both in encouraging equality for the gay community and fixing a massive image problem which previously existed. There's a danger now that the coverage and the row will itself add momentum to the rebellion. Today's headline could make the issue more toxic.
There are many Tory MPs who are less than convinced about the Government's focus on gay marriage, and advancing gay rights across the world. If there were a feeling (either justified or not) that religious institutions were being threatened with being forced to carry out gay marriage ceremonies, the rebellion would certianly be serious, and not just limited to those MPs who disapprove of homosexuality. Added to the gay-sceptic feelings of a core of MPs would be a larger group who no more want to see churches bullied than the bullying of gays.
But there are no such proposals. What the Independent's front page implies about Tory homophobia is alarming and questionable, but it allows an opportunity for absolute clarity on gay marriage – both on what the Government is and is not committed to.