David Cameron has told ministers to prioritise the legalisation of gay marriage – despite the growing Tory rebellion against the move.
The Prime Minister has made clear in Downing Street that he wants to drive through the legislation as quickly as practical, The Independent has learnt – a signal that it could be on the statute book by the end of next year.
Mr Cameron has acknowledged that the issue is provoking anger among many party activists as well as natural Conservative voters, but believes their views should be confronted.
A senior Downing Street source said: "He regards this as a straightforward matter of equality and believes that we should just get on with it."
Mr Cameron is resigned to Tory MPs opposing the move in large numbers. In a concession to his backbench critics, he has given them a free vote on the grounds that marriage equality is a matter of conscience. The No 10 source said: "They can vote how they want – it's a free vote – but it won't deflect us."
There is no chance of the proposals being defeated as same-sex marriage will be supported by the vast majority of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs.
Mr Cameron also believes the vociferous campaign against the move has masked the widespread support among sections of the party for marriage equality.
He was said to be heartened by support from Tory chairmen when he argued in favour of the reform during a private meeting at the party conference in Birmingham. The source said: "They were the loudest cheers of the whole session."
The Government has just completed a consultation exercise on how the equal marriage legislation could be implemented.
Although there has been a delay after responsibility for the issue was transferred from the Home Secretary, Theresa May, to the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, all Government sources stress the Government will push ahead with the plans. The Tory whips have warned ministers that opposition is strengthening on the party's benches. At least one member of the Cabinet – Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary – is expected to vote against the plan.
Some Conservative right-wingers claim they have had more resignations of party members over the issue than any other. One told The Independent: "Personally I support the Prime Minister on this, but I will have to vote against. Feeling is running so high in my party on the subject." Another said: "I have had more resignations from the party on this than on any other subject."
However, senior Tories insist that their historic hostility to gay rights issues has tainted their image and has proved a stumbling block to attempts to reach out to gay and lesbian voters. They draw a parallel with the Conservatives' problems in appealing to many ethnic minority voters.
Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, insisted last month that there would be no retreat from the plans. He described the "idea that fixing the economy and ensuring greater equality are mutually exclusive" as "utter rubbish", saying this was "a nonsense this Coalition Government will never bow to".