Tuesday the 5th of February saw the House of Commons vote in favour of adopting gay marriage in England and Wales with a majority of 225 votes. 175 MPs voted against the bill, with 136 of these votes coming from the Conservative party. Despite fewer Conservatives voting in favour of the bill than against, with 127 of their MPs supporting same-sex marriage, the Prime Minister said that this was “an important step forward” in our society. Nick Clegg added that the vote is a “landmark for equality in Britain.”
Divisions amongst the Conservatives on the issue have been particularly prominent in the media in the past few weeks, with numerous Tory MPs openly expressing their disdain. Owen Paterson, the environment secretary, is thought to have led the unofficial rebellion to the bill amongst the party. On opposing the bill, Tim Loughton MP commented “Who are we, this government or this country, to redefine the term marriage that has meant one man and one woman across cultures, across ages, across geographical barriers since before state and religion themselves?” Similarly, Sir Roger Gale MP said “It is Alice in Wonderland territory, Orwellian almost, for any government of any political persuasion to seek to come along and try to rewrite the political lexicon.”
The implications of these comments, and the conditions of the bill’s passing, however, speak volumes as to the state of the Conservative Party in light of the day’s triumph. The morning began shakily, with Labour 15 points ahead of the Conservatives in YouGov’s poll on the eve of the debate. This uncertainty was reiterated with the disappointing lack of the presence not only of David Cameron, but of George Osborne, Theresa May and William Hague throughout the duration of the day’s debate.
While the Prime Minister proclaimed his support for same-sex marriage in the 2011 party conference, public comments from him on the matter since have been relatively scarce. Not only does this make his standpoint seem somewhat flaky, it also strengthens the arguments of critics who say his support is only based on a desire to rebrand and modernise the Conservatives. Indeed, Nigel Dodds, an MP for the DUP argued that Cameron’s support for the bill had no deep conviction and was rather an unsubtle attempt to “de-toxify” his party. Additionally, the terms of the bill itself are still somewhat ambiguous, with queries left floating around whether churches will be forced to marry gay couples against their will. Maria Miller, Minister for Women and Equalities, responded only that this was to be confirmed and that the party had “done its best.”
This very public divide does nothing for the party’s image, exposing deep rooted separations within the Conservatives as more than half of the party stood against their leader. These divisions not only benefit the opposition, but also, sadly, draw attention away from the massive success of the bill’s passing. As Tory backbenchers threaten amendments and challenges to the bill, the focus becomes more about political rivalry than human rights and equality – this is simply not right. It is time for those who have opposed the bill to accept the result and move on, at the risk of appearing embittered and perhaps more importantly, at the risk of further damage to the already shaky image of the party at present.