Government pleads with Labour to save gay marriage bill
Tory rebellion on amendment to grant civil partnerships to heterosexual couples will 'cost £4bn and take two years'
Nicholas Watt, chief political correspondent; The Guardian, Monday 20 May 2013
Downing Street issued a stark warning that the bill to legalise gay marriage will run into grave trouble – and cost the taxpayer an extra £4bn – if the Labour party joins forces with Tory opponents to vote in favour of granting civil partnerships to heterosexual couples.
As David Cameron was accused by the Conservative Grassroots group of showing "utter contempt" for party activists by pressing ahead with plans to equalise marriage, Labour sources voiced fears that No 10 appeared to be trying to find ways of killing the bill.
The row erupted as No 10 braced itself for a loss of face as up to 150 Tory MPs prepare to show their opposition to the prime minister during a series of votes when the marriage (same sex couples) bill reaches its report stage in the Commons today.
At least two cabinet ministers – the environment secretary Owen Paterson and the Wales secretary David Jones – are prepared to vote for a series of amendments that would grant exemptions to teachers and registrars.
Chris Grayling, the justice secretary, and John Hayes, the prime minister's unofficial envoy to the Tory right, may also side with opponents of the bill during a series of votes, which are "free" – allowing MPs to vote with their consciences.
The government warned of three dangers to the bill if an amendment to grant civil partnerships to heterosexual couples is passed. It is being tabled by the former children's minister Tim Loughton who opposes gay marriage. A government source said the Loughton amendment would:
• Come with a price tag of £4bn. Steve Webb, the pensions minister, told parliament's joint committee on human rights last week that the state would be liable for new "survivors'" pension rights.
• Delay the introduction of the entire bill by 18 to 24 months because the government would need to work on the joint implementation of new rights for gay married couples and heterosexual couples in new civil partnerships.
• Complicate the government's argument that the changes are about strengthening the institution of marriage by opening it to all couples. "If you open up civil partnerships to opposite sex couples then the institution of marriage will be weakened," one government source said. "The church will not be happy about that."
Government sources said the warnings were aimed at Ed Miliband, Labour's leader, whose support for the amendment will be decisive. One source said: "Ed Miliband clearly wants to make political capital here. Perhaps he should think of the consequences."
But Labour rejected what it called the "farcical" warnings, as sources noted that the supposed size of the "price tag" had grown from £3bn to £4bn in five days. One source said: "They are wrecking this bill themselves and trying to blame others."
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary and shadow equalities minister, who has been negotiating with the equalities minister Maria Miller, told Sky News: "I think it's a real problem if this gets lost in the vortex of the Tory infighting that we had over the last couple of weeks when actually it's a really positive bill that we should all want to celebrate."