Nick Clegg has issued a stark warning to Conservative MPs and church leaders who oppose gay marriage that they will not succeed in blocking plans to legalise it.
The Deputy Prime Minister insisted it was a matter of "when not if" the law is changed, despite fresh signs of opposition. A Home Office consultation exercise which ended a week ago is believed to have received more than 100,000 responses, with a big majority of them hostile to the idea. Ministers suspect many were organised by campaign groups who oppose gay marriage.
Yesterday, Mr Clegg became the most senior politician to record a video message for the Out4Marriage group. He said: "I've always been very clear on this: love is the same, straight or gay, so the civil institution should be the same too. All couples should be able to make that commitment to one another, regardless of who they love."
The Lib Dem leader admitted the Government's plans had sparked a "heated debate" but added: "These are proposals about when and how to open up civil marriage to gay and lesbian couples. It's not a matter of 'if' any more."
Mr Clegg reassured supporters of the change by saying: "To those who are worried about some of the opposition to this move or the tone of the debate, let me just say, whether you are a gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual or straight: your freedom to love who you choose is a fundamental right in a liberal society – and you will always have our support. That's why I'm Out4Marriage."
James Walsh, parliamentary campaigner for Out4Marriage, said: "As a long-term supporter of equality in marriage, we welcome Mr Clegg's personal commitment that the Government will legislate to introduce equal marriage now."
The group urged ministers to go further than they plan by allowing churches to carry out gay marriages if they wish. Mr Walsh said: "We believe that equal marriage means same-sex couples should be allowed to marry in registry offices and other civil venues but also that churches, synagogues and other religious institutions should be allowed to solemnise same-sex marriages if they wish to do so. No institution should be forced to hold same-sex marriages, but those that wish to, should be allowed to, because religious freedom is important too."
A running survey of MPs' stated views by the Coalition for Equal Marriage suggests 245 MPs are likely to support legalising gay marriage, with 62 against and 16 neutral. The views of the remaining 327 MPs are not yet known.
Supporters believe David Cameron's decision to allow Tory MPs a free vote will not prevent the Commons voting for equal marriage by a big majority. Mr Clegg believes Tory MPs should be whipped to support the move because it is a Government measure, but accepts the decision is one for the Prime Minister to make.
More than 575,000 people have signed a petition opposing the move organised by the rival Coalition for Marriage.