Today’s official government response to the same-sex marriage consultation has predictably generated a greater outpouring of discontent than yesterday’s preliminary statement. Whilst the opposition benches sat sparsely populated, the Conservative backbenches were noticeably swollen, the clearest sign of an impending internal party clash.
Miller’s address to the House outlined the government’s pledge to deliver a “quadruple lock” which effectively aims to safeguard the rights of religious institutions from both practising same-sex marriage and being held accountable in a court of law, should they not wish to do so. The additional caveat of an “opt in” mechanism would ensure that even if a said religious institution decided to facilitate same-sex marriage, ministers within that organisation would not be obliged to follow suit. Despite this, overwhelming opposition to same-sex marriage from the Church of England, means that it will not have to adhere to government proposals, being banned – in law – from offering same-sex marriages.
Miller’s confidence that the proposals “strike the right balance” was soon countered by her opposite number shadow Culture Secretary Yvette Cooper. Cooper implored Miller to promote the government’s policy with confidence and not to be so defensive about her proposals. Undoubtedly in favour of the government’s stance, Cooper’s crude attempt to entice Tory backbenchers to pour scorn on the government, was easily countered by Miller, who assured those behind her that she “understood people’s concerns” over the proposal.
Conservative MP Martin Vickers was first to condemn the government, stating that such a major social change was “unacceptable” and such a controversial proposal “should be allowed to evolve” and not be “pushed through”. Fellow backbencher Sir Roger Gale offered a more measured reprimand, regaling that when serving on the Civil Partnerships Bill committee he had received cast iron assurances from –amongst others –the MP for Rhondda [Labour’s Chris Bryant] that the passing of the bill would definitely not lead to full-blown marriage; not the last to subsequently question the government’s “iron clad” assurances.
In response, Chris Bryant himself believed that such “an ultimate lock” on the Church of England could prove too restrictive, and that more leeway should be afforded were the church to extend the measure themselves, a comment provoking a host of snorts from the Tory backbenches.
Others opted for a different line of attack; claiming the government’s consultation figures to be wholly un-representative or worse still, a ploy designed to cover up the fact that the issue was a foregone conclusion. In response to a later question, Miller only fuelled further speculation on this matter as she seemingly let slip that it was “not whether we would proceed, but how we will proceed.”
Anti-same-sex marriage stalwart, Peter Bone MP, reinforced the consensus that the government was acting outrageously – particularly in light of not only Conservative, but Labour, Lib Dem and ‘Coalition for government’ manifestos, which he claimed made absolutely no mention of redefining marriage: “how does the secretary of state suggest she has any mandate for redefining marriage?”
Today’s statement was carefully crafted – espousing same-sex marriage whilst careful to concede ground in the form of a “quadruple lock”, to both safeguard institutional and individual rights, whilst no doubt appeasing government backbenchers. Now that the government has put its position beyond doubt, it now remains to be seen whether those opposing the Bill will follow through with their threats.