Nick Clegg has insisted that there will be no retreat from the Government's plans to legalise gay marriage – but was last night forced to deny branding opponents as "bigots".
The Liberal Democrat leader's attempt to reassure gay rights campaigners that last week's Cabinet reshuffle did not signal a change of policy provoked a new coalition row yesterday after an early draft of a speech backing same-sex marriage was mistakenly sent to journalists.
It read: "Continued trouble in the economy gives the bigots a stick to beat us with, as they demand we 'postpone' the equalities agenda in order to deal with 'the things that people really care about'." Aides said this version was never signed off by the Deputy PM, who took out the word "bigots". The version he approved said: "Continued trouble in the economy leads some people to demand we 'postpone' the equalities agenda…."
But the wrong draft was sent out in advance of Mr Clegg's speech to a reception attended by celebrities and activists last night.
Downing Street sources denied the speech had been changed after a row between the two coalition parties, insisting the word "bigot" was removed by Mr Clegg.
A spokesman for Mr Clegg said: "This was not something the Deputy Prime Minister has said. It is not something he was ever going to say because it's not something he believes."
But Peter Bone, a Tory opponent of same-sex marriage, said Mr Clegg should apologise or resign. "I don't think the Deputy Prime Minister of this country should call people who have got real objections on conscience and religious grounds 'bigots'," he said.
In his speech, Mr Clegg dismissed as "utter rubbish" the idea that fixing the economy and ensuring greater equality are mutually exclusive, saying this was "a nonsense this Coalition Government will never bow to".
He said the Olympics and Paralympics had shown Britain has the right spirit, values and ideas. "Of all those ideas, none can be more fundamental than the belief that people should be able to love whomever they choose; that we should let one another be, free from discrimination and able to enjoy the full equality that is each of our right," he said.