The Government said it was “seriously disappointed” by the British Overseas Territory’s move, but insisted the Foreign Secretary could only act in “exceptional circumstances” – a test it believes the legislation failed to meet.
Opposition MPs and campaigners argued the Foreign Office did have the power to act, describing Mr Johnson’s lack of an intervention as “shameful”.
Helen Goodman, Shadow Foreign Office minister, said Mr Johnson had made Britain “complicit” in Bermuda’s repeal of the marriage equality law.
“For that to happen anywhere in the world would be shameful,” she said. “For it to happen in a British territory, for the legislation signed by a British governor and permitted by a British foreign secretary makes us complicit in something which this House has repeatedly voted against.”
Backbench Labour MP David Lammy said Mr Johnson’s decision was a “source of great shame”, and accused Bermuda of a “deep-rooted history of oppression”.
Chris Bryant, a gay Labour MP who secured an urgent question in the House of Commons over Mr Johnson’s lack of intervention, said countries with poor records on LGBT+ rights would in future “laugh” at any criticism by the UK government.
It is understood the Foreign Office did not believe it had the legal authority to intervene because Bermuda’s new legislation, the Domestic Partnership Act 2017, continues to allow gay couples to form domestic partnerships with the same rights as heterosexual couples – despite it precluding same-sex marriage.
There was also an acute awareness among Foreign Office advisers that the UK had not intervened in Bermuda’s legislative process since its constitution was introduced in 1968, and that doing so now would have set a precedent.
Harriet Baldwin, a Foreign Office minister, said Mr Johnson decided the Government had to respect the “separate, self-governing jurisdictions” of Britain’s overseas territories.
She said: “After full and careful consideration in regard to Bermuda’s constitutional and international obligations, the Secretary of State decided that in these circumstances it would not be appropriate to use this power to block legislation, which can only be used where there is a legal or constitutional basis for doing so, and even only in exceptional circumstances.”
Prime Minister Theresa May‘s official spokesman said: “We are seriously disappointed that the Domestic Partnership Bill removes the right for same-sex couples to marry in Bermuda.
“But that Bill has been democratically passed by the Parliament of Bermuda, and our relationship with the overseas territories is based on partnership and respect for their right to democratic self-government.”
A Foreign Office spokeswoman added: “The introduction of same-sex marriage last year put Bermuda among the most progressive countries in the region in terms of LGBT equality.
“It is therefore disappointing to see them taking a step backwards and removing the right for same-sex couples to marry in Bermuda.
“The Governor of Bermuda took extensive advice before making a decision on whether to grant assent to the Domestic Partnership Bill which was democratically passed by the Parliament of Bermuda.
“The UK regrets that Bermuda has chosen this course, but we also respect and believe in their right to self-government.”
But Ms Goodman insisted the Government was wrong in its attempt to strike a “balancing act” when “it comes to the rights of British citizens”.
Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green Party, branded the Foreign Office’s position an “absolute scandal”.
“The FCO claims to stand for LGBT+ rights, yet in a territory THEY GOVERN they are waving through the repealing of same-sex marriage,” she said on Twitter. “This is a breach of human rights, and the Government should reverse their decision immediately.”
Bermuda’s governor, John Rankin, approved the bill on Wednesday to reverse the legislation, despite a Supreme Court ruling last year authorising gay marriage.
Minister of home affairs Walton Brown said the legislation signed by Mr Rankin was an attempt to satisfy opposition to same-sex marriage while complying with European court rulings that ensure recognition and protection for same-sex couples in the territory.
Bermuda’s Senate and House of Assembly passed the legislation by wide margins in December and a majority of voters opposed same-sex marriage in a referendum.
LGBT+ civil rights groups said domestic partnerships amounted to a second-class status.
“Governor Rankin and the Bermuda Parliament have shamefully made Bermuda the first national territory in the world to repeal marriage equality,” said Ty Cobb, director of the Human Rights Campaign Global.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies