Exclusive: Nick Clegg signals a free vote for Lib Dem MPs on same-sex marriage

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In an exclusive interview with PinkNews.co.uk, the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has said: “I’m not going to be illiberal in pushing through a liberal measure” when asked if it was still the case that Lib Dem MPs would be forced to vote with the government on equal marriage.

The deputy prime minister was speaking on Tuesday afternoon at an equal marriage event chaired by Benjamin Cohen, the founder of PinkNews.co.uk and Out4Marriage co-founder in central London, just hours after Culture Secretary Maria Miller confirmed in the Commons that legislation allowing gay couples to marry would be introduced in England and Wales during the first part of 2013.

In May, Nick Clegg criticised David Cameron for granting Conservative MPs a free on the issue – at a time when the government’s official position was that it was only looking at reforming civil marriage laws and not those concerning religious establishments.

He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “In the same way the civil partnerships legislation which was introduced under Labour was a whipped vote, I personally don’t think this is something which should be subject to a great free for all because we are not asking people to make a decision of conscience.”

Mr Clegg added: “If this was an issue that somehow the government was proposing something that would somehow be an imposition on religion or the churches then of course that would be a matter of conscience. We are not.”

Earlier on Tuesday, PinkNews.co.uk reported that Labour was no longer looking to enforce a three-line whip for its MPs over the issue, with one Labour MP telling the New Statesman that the inclusion of religious ceremonies in the government’s proposed legislation meant a vote of conscience was desirable.

Later on Tuesday, in an interview with PinkNews.co.uk, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg signalled a similar change in position, when asked if his party’s MPs would be whipped on the issue, Mr Clegg said:

“How votes and specific votes are organised in parliament is an issue for the parliamentary party as a whole, but let me be absolutely clear, this is Liberal Democrat Party policy, this is something we recently agreed as collective party policy, it is something I strongly believe in, it is something my colleagues strongly believe in, so in a sense I think the whipping arrangements are slightly here nor there, because I think this will get a thumping vote of support from Liberal Democrat MPs.”

Mr Clegg was then asked if his party’s MPs would be forced to vote with the government. He told PinkNews.co.uk:

“As I say, I’m not going to be illiberal in pushing through a liberal measure. I just fully expect Liberal Democrat MPs will vote in favour of something that we have recently formally adopted as our party policy in the Liberal Democrats.”

When asked about the results of the government’s consultation, which show 53% are in favour of the introduction of equal marriage, and whether this could be seen as a victory for the government’s position, Mr Clegg said to PinkNews.co.uk:

“I think it’s a victory for the values that many people in this country hold dear, of tolerance, of being positive about the kind of things that make relationships tick; love, commitment, a sense of loyalty and commitment to each other over a long period of time, all of that is reflected in increasing public support for marriage being made available to everybody.

“And also I think it is really important that we make sure language is properly shared on an equal basis – whilst that may sound like a slightly obscure thing to say – actually making sure that everyone feels they own that word ‘marriage’, which is a positive word, a positive concept and a positive tradition, is a great step forward for the country as a whole.”

During Tuesday’s equal marriage debate in the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes said he supported equal marriage, but claimed it wasn’t in any election manifesto, and that it was not in the coalition agreement. He urged the culture secretary to proceed carefully, and to make it clear that civil marriage remains different from religious marriage.

Mr Clegg concluded his PinkNews.co.uk interview by stating that he hoped the announcement of a set of legal measures designed to protect churches from being forced to marry gay couples could mean religious opposition from Anglican and Catholic leaders over the government’s reforms would begin to subside.

“I hope that quite a lot of the heat of this debate will now diminish because we have made strenuous efforts to ensure that those churches, the Church of England, and indeed other churches, who don’t want to be asked to perform marriage ceremonies which they don’t want to provide, I hope that will settle some of those nerves.

“I certainly have had lengthy discussions with the Archbishop of Canterbury, with Reverend Vincent Nichols and others, and there is a sincerely held difference of opinion about what marriage is… in the same way I don’t want those couples who haven’t been able to marry in the past to be prevented from doing so, I also don’t want to impose a definition of marriage that some people sincerely don’t share.”

Benjamin Cohen of Out4Marriage told PinkNews.co.uk: “Today Nick Clegg demonstrated his whole-hearted support for introducing same-sex marriage in England and Wales. We have to hope that he’s right when he says that his MPs and Peers will vote for the law to change, marriage equality is after all the official policy of the Liberal Democrats.”