Prime Minister David Cameron has vowed to make same sex marriage legal in England and Wales before the end of this parliament. Tuesday, the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill received its second reading in the House of Commons where it passed 400-175. At first glance, this looks like a triumph for the PM and his coalition government. However, most of the Conservative Party’s MPs voted against it, 139 to 132 with 32 abstentions or absences. The PM now has a serious problem.
The Bill now goes to a committee of MPs for discussion where rebel Tories are already tabling amendment upon amendment. After that, the House of Lords will consider the legislation, and Their Lordships will make even more changes. Once approved in Lords, it will return to Commons for a final reading and vote, and should the House pass that, royal assent would make it law. This parliament, however, has about two more years to run, and it is not inconceivable that the Bill’s opponents could delay it to death yet.
The divisions in the Tory Party are clear. Mr. Cameron said, “The great thing about last night’s vote is that two gay people who love each other will now be able to get married, and I think that is an important advance. I think we should be promoting marriage, rather than looking at any other way of weakening it.”
However on Sunday, several MPs signed a letter that was published on the Conservative Grassroots website, which read in part, “We feel very strongly that the decision to bring this Bill before Parliament has been made without adequate debate or consultation with either the membership of the Conservative Party or with the country at large. Long-held religious and personal freedoms and the right to free speech will be adversely affected by the passing of this Bill.”
The calculation at Number 10 for proceeding is quite logical politically. Most young people in the , like their counterparts elsewhere in the west, can’t see why same sex couples are denied marriage equality. That is the electoral future. By passing this Bill, Mr. Cameron will move the Tories farther away from their Nasty Party image of the 1980s and 1990s and make the Tories more of a 21sst century conservative party.
That calculation, though, is also a principled one. Daniel Finklestein (a long-standing, conservative friend here) wrote in the Times, “A society cannot be successful if it lightly discards tradition, but it cannot be successful either if it stifles liberty in the hope of halting progress. Things do not stay the same, and it is poor history and poor conservatism to argue that they do.”
Given the general support of the Bill from Mr. Cameron’s junior coalition partners in the Liberal Democratic Party and from the opposition Labour Party, the votes are there to make it law. The issue is how much damage do the Conservatives suffer by continuing to show such deep divisions in public. Even the rebel Tories have said Mr. Cameron’s job is not on the line; he won’t face a leadership challenge. However, many believe he needs to win an outright majority in Commons in the 2015 election to keep his job. The UK Independence Party is already taking Conservative votes over European relations. Might Mr. Cameron lose some votes over this Bill? Might they be enough to cost him in 2015? An economic miracle right about now would help.