There are growing demands for the Conservative leader David Cameron to clarify his party's stance on gay rights, after the shadow Home Secretary said that Christian bed and breakfast owners should be allowed to refuse accommodation to gay couples.
Chris Grayling provoked astonishment and anger yesterday after he was secretly recorded saying that B&B owners should be able to exclude gay guests. His comments contradict the party line on gay rights, but there was no reaction or public rebuke from Mr Cameron, despite requests.
Some decades ago, B&Bs could have signs outside their doors stating "No gays, no blacks, no Irish", recalls Ben Summerskill, chief executive of the Stonewall gay rights group. However legislation and changing attitudes have have made it much harder for landlords to discriminate openly. It has been illegal since April 2007 for commercial accommodation providers to exclude someone based on their sexual orientation.
But during a talk at a centre-right think tank, Mr Grayling told the audience he believed that although hotels should not be allowed to discriminate, different rules should govern bed and breakfasts. "I think we need to allow people to have their own consciences," he said. "If you look at the case of should a Christian hotel owner have the right to exclude a gay couple from a hotel, I took the view that if it's a question of somebody who's doing a B&B in their own home, that individual should have the right to decide who does and who doesn't come into their own home." His comments were jumped on by gay rights activists and political opponents, who accused the Conservatives of saying one thing about gay rights in public and another in private. The shadow Home Secretary's comments are embarrassing for Mr Cameron, who has tried to woo the gay vote by portraying the Conservatives as a party that now fully supports equality.
The Tories are likely, for example, to have almost 20 gay MPs after polling day. Mr Grayling may also find trouble closer to home – just last Wednesday his colleague Dominic Grieve, the shadow Justice Secretary, said that B&Bs should not be able to discriminate, The Independent has learnt. "If you decide you are going to turn your home into a bed and breakfast, you are providing a public service and you have to accept that you cannot discriminate over who stays there," Mr Grieve said.
"If you can't accept that then you are in the wrong business. It is no different from a Muslim taxi driver refusing to take a blind person because they think the dog is dirty: the law states you must take the blind person. You have no recourse to argue."
Michael Black, a 62-year-old, self-employed exams consultant, who was turned away from the Swiss B&B in Cookham, Berkshire last month after the owner said she wouldn't accommodate gay couples, called for Mr Grayling to be sacked.
"His comments give the green light to anyone who wants to discriminate because of their religious beliefs," Mr Black said. "I'm a vegetarian for ethical reasons. If I went to go work in an abattoir and refused to kill animals, I could hardly be expected to keep my job and take my employers to a tribunal if I got sacked." And Mr Summerskill at Stonewall, which has openly welcomed the Conservatives' shift towards full gay equality, said: "There are lots of gay people out there who are thinking about voting Conservative – many for the first time in their lives," he said. "They will now be interrogating these issues much more thoroughly."
Some Christian groups welcomed Mr Grayling's comments. "This is a statement of common sense," said Andrea Williams, the director of the Christian Legal Centre. "It is vital in a diverse and free society that we truly tolerate one another's views."
Mr Graying is expected to signal a Tory election campaign shift to "in your face" policing to "stop, harass and challenge" troublemakers in a crack down on anti-social behaviour.