Major to back gay sex at 18

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JOHN MAJOR is set to disappoint gay-rights campaigners tomorrow by voting against a common age of consent for both sexes. But his lead to Tory backbenchers may have come too late to stave off radical reform, write Stephen Castle and Paul Routledge.

Advocates of lowering the age of male homosexual consent from 21 to 16 believe their long campaign is on the verge of success, with almost 290 MPs across the political spectrum committed to voting for 'equal rights'.

But the Prime Minister is expected to vote against, opting instead for a compromise proposal to lower the age of consent to 18. However, even this step is likely to upset some of his right-wing supporters in Parliament and the Conservative Party at large.

The Government has given MPs a free vote on age-of-consent amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill, and the House of Commons will have three options: 16, 18, and a further possible compromise of 17, tabled by the Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes.

Voting, which will be late at night, is being taken in that order. If 16 fails, it is virtually certain that 18 will be carried.

Despite worries in government circles that a lowering of the age of consent could rebound in the wake of the row over the 'moral dimension' of back-to-basics, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, will put the case for 18.

Mr Major, who first indicated his interest in the issue in a meeting with Sir Ian McKellen, the actor, in September 1991, is expected to follow suit.

According to government sources, the support of about30 Tory MPs could be enough to secure 16, although a large number of Conservative abstentions might allow the proposal to squeeze through.

Stonewall, the gay-rights campaign group, calculates that the pro-equality camp has 'close to 290 possible votes', 30 of them Conservatives whose support has been discreetly enlisted in lobbying.

Paul Barnes, spokesman for the Tory Campaign for Homosexual Reform, said: 'By Tuesday morning the age of consent will have been reduced, because if we do not get 16, 18 will be a walkover.

'There is going to be a big celebration. All the clubs are throwing their doors open on Monday night. I'm not planning to be at work on Tuesday.'

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