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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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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