British PM faces party rebellion over gay marriage

LONDON (AFP) - British Prime Minister David Cameron faced deepening splits within his Conservative Party on Monday as a divisive bill to legalise gay marriage returned to parliament.

The bill was approved by a comfortable 225-vote majority when it was last debated in February despite the opposition of almost half of Conservative lawmakers.

But dozens of disgruntled Conservative MPs are expected to deliver a blow to Mr Cameron's agenda by backing an amendment saying that if gay couples are allowed to marry, then heterosexual couples should also be able to have civil partnerships.

The government warned it was a "wrecking amendment" which could delay the passing of the gay marriage bill by up to two years and cost £4 billion (S$7.6 billion) in pension changes.

The main opposition Labour Party, while it backs gay marriage, had hinted that it could join the Conservative rebels in backing the amendment because it argues that the government has failed to make a convincing case against extending civil partnerships.

But the government and Labour signalled later Monday they were ready to work together to defeat the backbench bid to derail the legislation.

Labour leader Ed Miliband tweeted that Mr Cameron's "inability to control his party must not be allowed to wreck the Equal Marriage Bill". He added: "Labour's commitment unwavering."

A source close to Culture Secretary Maria Miller, who is responsible for steering the legislation through parliament, said she was "very relaxed" about a Labour proposal for an immediate consultation on extending civil partnerships to heterosexual couples.

Ms Miller told parliament that the review would see how civil partnerships could be developed "if there is a demand for them", hinting that they could be scrapped altogether.

The agreement to put the matter to consultation should defuse the Conservative backbenchers' demands and allow the gay marriage bill to proceed to the upper house of parliament, the House of Lords, where it is expected to face stiff opposition.

Lawmakers are allowed a free vote on gay marriage, meaning they are not required to follow party directions because it is considered an issue of conscience.

The vote comes at a time when Mr Cameron is already under pressure from a large section of his fractious centre-right party over his stance on a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union.

Grassroots Conservative supporters fear that with a general election two years away, Mr Cameron's backing for gay marriage is driving traditional Tory voters to the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which had its best ever electoral performance last month when it made gains in local elections.

A letter signed by more than 30 current and former Conservative local party chairmen and handed to Cameron on Sunday gave a taste of the bitterness in Tory ranks.

They accused him of "treating the membership with contempt" over the issue.

"The bill could cost us the election... therefore, prime minister, for the sake of the well-being of the country and the integrity and future success of the party, we urge you not to continue with your policy of re-defining marriage," it said.

The vote comes after a member of Mr Cameron's inner circle fiercely denied claims that he had branded grassroot party members as "mad, swivel-eyed loons".

Party co-chairman Lord Andrew Feldman, a schoolmate of Cameron's at the elite Eton College, has strenuously denied rumours linking him with the comments and said he was considering legal action.

Mr Cameron issued a message to all Conservative party members on Monday praising their contribution.

"I am proud to lead this party," he said.

"I am proud of what you do. And I would never have around me those who sneered or thought otherwise. We are a team, from the parish council to the local association to Parliament, and I never forget it."

Conservative backbenchers' fears over the rise of UKIP prompted around 114 Tory MPs last week to back a motion in parliament expressing regret that the coalition government's plans for the year contained no guarantee of a referendum on EU membership.

On Saturday, France became the 14th country to legalise gay marriage when Socialist President Francois Hollande signed it into law, despite fierce protests from the main opposition right-wing UMP party.