The Conservative grassroots rebellion over plans to equalise laws to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry has moved up a step with a group of party constituency chairmen and longstanding supporters taking their protest to Downing Street. A letter signed by 22 current and former chairmen of local groups urges the prime minister to reconsider or at least delay the plans, which face a crucial vote this week.
With 303 Conservative MPs and more than twice that many parliamentary constituencies in the UK, the signatories officially represent a small proportion of the party grassroots party. But their intervention will be taken seriously with growing signs of unhappiness among Tory MPs and their supporters. Even MPs who support equal marriage laws report they are inundated with emails and letters objecting to the move and only a small handful are in support. Sunday newspapers report that up to four cabinet ministers and potentially more than half of Conservative MPs are considering voting against the bill on Tuesday – which despite being a free vote would be an embarrassment to the Tory leadership and especially for David Cameron, who has been so closely associated with the proposal.
No 10 claim the number of likely Tory no-votes is closer to 130 MPs. The bill is expected to pass with overwhelming support from Liberal Democrats and Labour. In their letter, the constituency chairmen say: "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 runup to the 2015 election." However Tim Montgomerie, editor of the Conservative Home party-supporting website, pointed to analysis of polls by YouGov showing opposition to equal marriage would only cost the party at most 1% of its total current estimated support at the next election, not including any votes it might win as a result of pushing through the measure.
The letter's signatories say there is a lot of public opposition. They argue civil partnerships already allow gay and lesbian couples to form legal ties, and warn the proposals do not give adequate protection for churches and teachers to refuse to conduct the ceremonies or teach pupils about them. But they reserve their fiercest criticism for bringing forward the bill "without adequate debate or consultation with either the membership of the Conservative party or the country at large".