The Conservative Party must embrace equality including gay rights or risk permanent electoral oblivion, a Midland MP has warned.
Margot James (Con Stourbridge) said her party was in danger of falling in to the same trap as the Republican Party in the United States – which she said could have won last year’s Presidential election if not for its “socially conservative agenda”.
And she said that opposition to same-sex marriage among Conservative MPs showed that the party had not yet succeeded in “modernising” in the way party leader David Cameron wished.
Ms James was speaking during the Commons debate on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which was approved by 400 votes to 175.
But the overwhelming vote in favour masked the division among Conservative MPs, with 136 opposing the measure and just 127 backing it.
MPs were given a free vote but the scale of opposition was a blow to David Cameron, who had personally championed the measure for many years. Those voting against included Cabinet Minister Owen Paterson (Con Shropshire North), the Environment Secretary, and Justice Minister Jeremy Wright (Con Kenilworth and Southam).
Ms James warned that the Prime Minister’s attempts to rid the Tories of their image as an intolerant party had not entirely succeeded.
She said: “I am indebted to the Prime Minister not only for the Bill, but for the changes he has brought about within my party, which have led to my own election and that of many others and changed the face of the parliamentary party. As a result of the debate over the past six months, we may have gone two steps forward, but I fear we have also gone one step back. The modernisation of the Conservative party is not yet complete.”
Highlighting the re-election of Democrat US President Barack Obama last year, she said: “We still have some way to go, not just for gay people but in other areas too. My party should never flinch from the requirement to continue this progression; otherwise we may end up like the Republican party, which lost an election last year that it could have won were it not for its socially conservative agenda.”
"We may end up like the Republican party, which lost an election last year that it could have won were it not for its socially conservative agenda.”Conservative MP Margot James
Ms James, whose partner is television presenter Jay Hunt, said: “It has been argued that equality is not all that matters – that we are different and we should celebrate differences. I agree: we should celebrate cultural and other differences. However, having been different for most of my life, I can assure you that being treated equally is very welcome indeed.”
A number of MPs spoke strongly in favour of the measure. Emma Reynolds (Lab Wolverhampton North East) said: “I hope that one day, we will live in a truly equal society in which there is little or no discrimination. I do not believe that that is a utopian dream. I believe that it is a possibility, but we have a very long way to go.
“The introduction of equal marriage and the Bill before us are an indispensable step in the journey towards that equal society.”
But many of those who supported the change also expressed concerns, particularly about whether safeguards to ensure churches and other religious institutions could not be forced to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies would be enforced.
Jim Cunningham (Lab Coventry South), who voted in favour of the Bill, said: “Something that I have detected in correspondence is a fear that, contrary to the assurances that we have been given, the Bill will, at a later date, be revisited and unpicked.”
Conservative MPs who opposed the Bill included Bill Cash (Stone), Mark Garnier (Wyre Forest), Andrew Griffiths (Burton), Marcus Jones (Nuneaton), Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford), Karen Lumley (Redditch), James Morris (Halesowen & Rowley Regis), Owen Paterson (Shropshire North), Mark Pawsey (Rugby), Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin), Sir Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills), Bill Wiggin (Herefordshire North), Gavin Williamson (Staffordshire South) and Jeremy Wright (Kenilworth & Southam).
Labour MPs who voted against the Bill included Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South).
Roger Godsiff (Lab Hall Green), who has stated he opposes the Bill, did not vote because he was away from Westminster. Khalid Mahmood (Lab Perry Barr) did not vote and told The Birmingham Post he had chosen to abstain.