Testing the Tory mood on gay marriage

David Cameron

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David Cameron received warm applause when he said in his speech at the Conservative party conference in Manchester in October 2011 that he was consulting on legalising gay marriage.

He told delegates: "I don't support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I'm a Conservative."

He said it was something he passionately believed in and told the party it was about equality and commitment.

But this angered a swathe of the party.

Ann Widdecombe led the backlash and said members were furious at being labelled "bigots" by those campaigning for the legalisation of gay marriage.

If David Cameron thought that anger would have dissipated by now it seems he was wrong.

'Majority support'

As MPs debate and vote in the Commons on the Same Sex Marriage Bill the divisions within the party have been laid bare.

Take Croydon - it is London's largest borough by population. Both the Conservative MPs there acknowledge some members have left the party over the issue but they are backing the bill.

Richard Ottaway, the MP for the safe Conservative seat of Croydon South, admits members have left but insists some younger ones are signing up. He is standing down at the next election so may feel freer to vote with his conscience over the issue.

The MP in the neighbouring Croydon Central constituency, Gavin Barwell, is in a marginal seat with a much smaller majority - less than 3,000.

He believes it is fundamentally the right thing to do and says: "If you look at the opinion polls what they would suggest is that a majority of people support this measure, but there are some people who feel very strongly that it's not the right thing to do."

He says it is right for politicians to listen to what people say, but ultimately believes MPs have to do what they think is right for the country.

But the decision to back the bill puts him at odds with many of his grassroots supporters in the constituency. Graham Bass has been a councillor in the Purley area for more than 20 years. He also collects subscriptions for the local Conservative Association and says it is an issue on the doorsteps.

He said: "A fair number of them do not like it - a fair number seriously don't like it."

Unease

He said in extreme cases some of them are not renewing their membership of the party and say it is because of the same sex marriage issue.

And Mr Bass has plenty of support at the local Conservative Club. One member told me he does not believe in gay marriage because of his Christian beliefs. Another said he supports civil partnerships, but thinks that goes far enough.

Mr Barwell counters that by saying there is enough protection within the bill for those religious institutions which do not want to conduct same sex ceremonies.

But that safeguard has not been enough to win round many in the party - it is estimated around a third of Tory MPs will oppose the bill or abstain in the free vote. While the majority of the cabinet are likely to back the bill, some cabinet members, as well as junior ministers and party whips, could oppose it or abstain.

Giving same sex couple the right to marry in a religious setting is something David Cameron hoped would win the party broader support. But, it seems from Croydon, the issue also risks alienating some of the party's core support.

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