David Cameron remains committed to legalising gay marriage and has rebuked one of his ministers for opposing the move, Downing Street said yesterday.
The Prime Minister backed Nick Clegg who, as The Independent revealed on Tuesday, has promised that the Government's plans will not be derailed by growing opposition among Conservative MPs. Owen Paterson, the Northern Ireland Secretary, has said he will not support the proposal.
Mr Cameron's spokesman said the Government was "committed to introducing same-sex civil marriage" by the end of the current Parliament, in 2015. Asked whether the normal rules of collective responsibility would apply, he said: "It is a government commitment."
Tory MPs reacted angrily, saying Mr Paterson and other ministers should be allowed a free vote when the legislation is brought forward.
Stewart Jackson, Mr Paterson's former parliamentary private secretary, warned that any attempt to whip MPs would cause "serious divisions". He said: "No 10 would be foolish in the extreme to disregard this as a conscience issue. Whipping the vote would be a catastrophic error of judgement and would generate serious divisions."
Peter Bone, the Tory MP for Wellingborough, warned: "There would be uproar in the party and ministerial resignations."
Mark Pritchard, a former secretary of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, claimed on the PoliticsHome website: "The Prime Minister has given a clear commitment to a free vote on gay marriage – therefore, Owen Paterson's comments are perfectly in order."
But two other Tory MPs, Desmond Swayne, Mr Cameron's parliamentary private secretary, and Crispin Blunt, the Justice minister, recorded video messages for the Out4Marriage campaign. Mr Swayne said he supported the move because he is a Christian. "I am married. I enjoy bring married,"he said. "It is a huge blessing. I want that blessing to be extended to everyone."
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