LONDON – British lawmakers voted in favor of controversial legislation allowing gay marriage Tuesday despite fierce opposition from members of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party.
The move puts Britain on track to join the 10 countries that allow same-sex couples to marry, but Cameron had the embarrassment of seeing more than half of his Conservative members of Parliament refuse to back him.
The prime minister insisted that the plan to allow same-sex couples to marry in England and Wales would “make our society stronger,” although the draft law still has several other parliamentary hurdles to clear. “Strong views exist on both sides but I believe MPs voting for gay people being able to marry too, is a step forward for our country,” Cameron tweeted after the vote.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who leads the Conservatives’ coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, hailed the result as a “landmark for equality.”
“Tonight’s vote shows Parliament is very strongly in favor of equal marriage,” he said. “Marriage is about love and commitment, and it should no longer be denied to people just because they are gay.”
The vote passed by 400 to 175, mainly because it had overwhelming support from the Lib Dems and the opposition Labour Party.
But just 127 of Cameron’s 303 Conservative lawmakers voted in favor of the plans, with 136 voting against and 40 either formally abstaining or not voting. Two Conservative Cabinet ministers, Owen Paterson and David Jones, were among those who voted against, while Defense Secretary Philip Hammond and Attorney General Dominic Grieve stayed away.
Cameron had allowed lawmakers a free vote on the issue, meaning they were not directed by party managers.
Opponents attacked the bill during an often impassioned daylong debate ahead of the House of Commons vote. Pleas from Cameron’s heavyweight Cabinet allies to persuade their Conservative colleagues to back his plans and avoid damaging divisions fell on deaf ears.
A former junior defense minister, Gerald Howarth, said the government had no mandate for such a “massive social and cultural change,” stressing: “I believe this bill is wrong, the consultation was a complete sham. It has caused deep and needless divisions within the Conservative Party.”
Same-sex couples in Britain have had the right to live in civil partnerships since 2005 but cannot marry.
The bill must be scrutinized by a panel of lawmakers and then go before the House of Lords before becoming law. While a majority of Britons back gay marriage, polls show that Cameron’s support for the issue could undermine his party’s chances at the next general election.