Cameron provokes Tory anger as he backs gay marriages in churches

Conservative MPs criticise PM after he announces that religious organisations will be able to host same-sex weddings.

David Cameron has just confirmed the report in today's Evening Standard that he will allow religious groups to host gay marriages. He said:

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.

The move brings Cameron into line with Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, both of whom have argued that those groups who are willing to conduct same-sex weddings, such as Quakers and Reform Jews, should be free to do so.

After being warned that a blanket ban would be open to legal challenge, ministers maintain that those religious organisations that oppose gay marriage, including the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, will not be forced to host ceremonies. But some Tory MPs argue otherwise. Soon after the Standard's story appeared, Conservative MP Mark Pritchard tweeted: "Exemptions for places of worship in the same-sex marriage Bill likely to be ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court or the ECHR within months". He added that the introduction of gay marriage would "undo much of the good outreach work the Party has done with Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu communities". Also swift to denounce Cameron was Tory MP Stewart Jackson, who declared: "Gay marriage bill will be massacred in the Lords and govt can't use Parliament Act as it wasn't in manifesto. Arrogant Cameron knows best."

But despite the opposition of as many as 118 Tory MPs and a near-majority of Conservative voters, it now seems certain that a free vote on the issue will be held early next year. The government believes that its support for gay marriage puts it on the right side of history and demonstrates its liberal credentials. As George Osborne wrote in the Times (£) last month, "Successful political parties reflect the modern societies they aspire to lead".

With the support of the majority of Labour and Lib Dem MPs, the bill will easily make it through the Commons. But Cameron faces one of the biggest battles he has ever fought with his party.

David Cameron said he didn't want "gay people to be excluded from a great institution". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.