Members of Parliament tonight overwhelming endorsed historic legislation that will give gay couples the equal right to marry.
Almost half a century after homosexuality was legalised in Britain the House of Commons voted by a majority of 400 to 175 to redefine marriage and make it available to all.But embarrassingly for David Cameron he failed to get a majority of his own MPs to support the move. 139 Tories, including two cabinet ministers, rebelled against the Government with just 132 supporting the measure. There were 75 abstentions.
Nick Clegg hailed the result as a “landmark for equality in Britain” which showed “no matter who you are and who you love, we are all equal” while Ed Miliband said it was “an important step forward in the fight for equality in Britain”.
David Cameron said that while “strong views” existed on both sides he believed MPs voting for gay people being able to marry was “a step forward for our country”.
However opponents vowed to fight on. The Conservative MP David Burrowes more people would oppose the Bill as it progressed through the Houses of Parliament.
“(The vote) was significant perhaps, even unprecedented, in terms of a government not being able to rely on half of members of parliament from their own benches,” he said. “It shows the deep concern that there is in the party and I think as we go through the passage of the bill we will see increasing numbers voting (in) opposition“
Seven hours of intense and often heartfelt debate revealed deep divisions on both sides of the House over the proposals.
Dozens of Conservatives, including the environment secretary Owen Patterson and the Welsh Secretary David Jones, defied the appeals of Mr Cameron to vote against changing the law claiming it would impinge upon religious freedoms.
Others, such as the Government’s Attorney General Dominic Grieve abstained, with some MPs deliberately voting in both lobbies to express how torn they were on the subject.
A number of Labour and Liberal Democrats also chose to vote against the Bill which will now face a bruising passage through committee and the House of Lords before almost certainly becoming law later this year.
To the dismay of gay marriage supporters neither David Cameron nor the string of senior Conservative ministers who have recently come out to back the change sat in the Commons as the Culture Secretary Maria Miller outlined the Government’s plans.
In recent days Mr Cameron has also declined to reiterate his public support for the Bill with Downing Street insisting it was a genuinely free vote.
However an hour before the vote he recorded a last minute television interview saying the move would make society stronger.
“Marriage helps people commit to each other and I think it is right that gay people should be able to get married too,” he said.
“This is, yes, about equality. But it is also about making our society stronger”
Ms Miller said the bill would allow society to recognise in law that gay couples had the same “depth of feeling, love and commitment” as heterosexual couples.
“I don’t think it’s the role of Government to tell people what to believe,” she said.
“But I do think that Parliament and the state have a responsibility to treat people fairly.”
She was forcefully backed up by her Labour opposite number Yvette Cooper. While the Labour frontbench strongly support the move around 20 of their MPs voted against the motion.
“We should not hide discrimination by calling it definition instead,” she said.
“Marriage has changed many times over the centuries…and it should change again.
“Society hasn’t collapsed. If marriage is to stay relevant, to stay important and to remain a crucial part of our family and social relationships, then it also has to remain in tune with the values of every generation
“And that means it should keep up with rightly changing attitudes towards homosexuality too.”
A significant number of gay MPs made passionate and moving speeches urging their colleagues to support the legislation.
The Conservative MP Mike Freer, who was elected to Margaret Thatcher’s old seat of Finchley in 2010 told MPs: “I sit alongside you in committees, in the bars and in the tea rooms.
“I queue alongside you in the division lobbies but when it comes to marriage why are you asking me to stand apart and join a separate queue?
“If I am equal in this House give me every opportunity to be equal. Today we have a chance to set that right.”
The Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Gilbert described the difficulties of growing up as a gay man in Cornwall.
“I am a gay man who grew up in a rural part of our country from a working class background. It was an environment which made it hugely difficult to be open, honest and upfront with my family, friends and fellow workmates.
“That was unacceptable 20 years ago it is unacceptable today. I think this legislation will send a signal that this house values everybody equally. That signal will deeply affect people like me.”
Other heterosexual MPs also made powerful interventions in favour of the move.
The former Labour minister David Lammy dismissed suggestion that it somehow undermined Christianity.
“The Jesus I know was an illegitimate refugee born with a death sentence on his head,” he said.
“He would stand up for minorities”.
But others expressed strident opposition to the proposal arguing it was a slippery slope that would lead to churches being forced to marry same sex couples. They also pointed out that the measure did not attract widespread national support and had not been any of the party’s manifestos.
“The product of this bill will end up before the courts will end up before the European Court of Human Rights and people of faith will find that faith being trampled on,” said the Conservative MP Roger Gale.
“That to us is intolerable. It is not possible to redefine marriage. Marriage is the union between and man and a woman.”
Sir Gerald Howarth said: “I believe marriage can only be between a man and a woman and I shall not surrender my principles. I believe this bill is wrong.”
Afterwards equality campaigners welcomed the vote.
“This is an historic day and a huge step forward for equality. After centuries of facing prejudice and discrimination, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people can finally look forward to a day when they are no longer treated as second-class citizens,” said Tom French, Policy Coordinator for the Equality Network.
“MPs have taken a stand for what is right, by overwhelmingly backing this fair and progressive law.”
The Coalition for Marriage, which opposes the bill said they were delighted by the scale of the Parliamentary opposition.
“Just a few months ago, if we had predicted this result, no one would have believed us,” said campaign director Colin Hart.
“But our clear and simple message that these proposals are undemocratic and will lead to all sorts of unintended consequences has struck a chord with ordinary voters and now scores of MPs.”
Notable Tory rebels
Graham Brady – chairman of 1922 committee
Simon Burns – Transport minister
Michael Fallon – Business minister
Dr Liam Fox – former Defence Secretary
Cheryl Gillan – former Welsh Secretary
David Jones - Welsh Secretary
Greg Knight – Government Whip
David Lidington – Europe Minister
Esther McVey – Work and Pensions Minister
Owen Paterson – Environment Secretary