Cameron Tested as Gay Marriage Splits U.K. Conservatives

Prime Minister David Cameron will probably need support from other parties this week to win a parliamentary vote to allow gay marriage as dissent grows among officials and lawmakers of his U.K. Conservative party.

“More time should be afforded to debate an issue of such gravity,” more than 20 current or former local party chairmen wrote in a letter to Cameron yesterday. “Resignations from the party are beginning to multiply and we fear that, if enacted, this bill will lead to significant damage to the Conservative Party in the run-up to the 2015 election.”

The controversy highlights the challenge for Cameron as he balances conflicting views in his own party and sustains a governing coalition with the Liberal Democrats. While a Sunday Times opinion poll showed most Britons are in favor of allowing gay marriage, the Sunday Telegraph said more than half of Cameron’s lawmakers may oppose or abstain tomorrow in the so-called free vote, in which they don’t have to follow his lead.

“It’s for them to make their own decisions, as it is when we have votes on abortion laws or capital punishment,” Foreign Secretary William Hague, a Conservative who supports the measure, said on the BBC’s “Sunday Politics” television show. “If we weren’t debating it now it would instead be a big issue in the general election and we’d all have to say where we stood then anyway.”

In the letter delivered to Cameron’s Downing Street office in London at lunchtime yesterday, the Conservative activists said there hasn’t been enough consultation or debate on the gay marriage measure within the party or the country. They said there is “no mandate” for it from their 2010 election manifesto or in the coalition accord with the Liberal Democrats.

‘Huge Priority’

“It wasn’t in the coalition agreement, and all of a sudden it’s taking huge priority,” Tim Loughton, a Conservative member of Parliament who opposes the measure, said on Sky News television. “It’s going to take up a lot of parliamentary time. It’s going to set MP against MP and we don’t need it.”

The Sunday Telegraph said that about 120 Conservative lawmakers may support the gay marriage bill, leaving about 180, including as many as four members of Cameron’s cabinet, likely to either oppose it or abstain. They include Defense Secretary Philip Hammond, who will vote against the bill or abstain, according to the newspaper.

“This is a huge redefinition of something that has survived many, many centuries,” said Loughton, a former education minister. “Who are we, who is this government, who is this country to determine, impose, nationalize a new definition of marriage?”

‘Equal Access’

Loughton spoke just after Conservative Culture Minister Ed Vaizey defended the gay marriage measure on Sky News.

“It is right that people in a loving relationship have equal access to the institution of civil marriage,” Vaizey said. “People’s concerns that they might be forced to do things that they don’t want, to support particularly religious marriages, have been protected in this bill.”

The Sunday Times poll by YouGov Plc suggested that most people agree. In the survey of 2,030 adults taken on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, 55 percent were in favor of same-sex marriage, with 36 percent opposed and 9 percent saying they don’t know.

Conservative Education Secretary Michael Gove, in an article in the Daily Mail supporting the measure, sought to reassure teachers who may hold strong convictions against it.

“Teachers will not be able to pretend that legal marriages between same-sex couples do not exist, but there will be no requirement to promote them,” Gove said. “That position will not be changed by the new definition of marriage.”

Meanwhile, Cameron may seek to stop plots against his leadership and please elements of his party by bringing back Liam Fox to the cabinet, the Sunday Telegraph reported. Fox, a former defense secretary who resigned in 2011, also opposes the gay marriage bill, the newspaper said.

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