Nick Clegg is ‘sad and disappointed’ ex-Stonewall boss Ben Summerskill is trying to divide LGBT community

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Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has criticised the former chief executive of Stonewall for saying the Liberal Democrats were “opportunistic” in supporting equal marriage.

Ben Summerskill made the remarks in a BBC programme about gay rights, to be broadcast tomorrow on Radio 4, and also in yesterday’s Observer newspaper.

He claimed that the Liberal Democrats supported same-sex marriage in order to put distance between themselves and the Conservative Party in 2010.

Mr Summerskill said he was convinced that this was the case because of an alleged comment made by former Lib Dem MP Evan Harris who he claimed said: “This is great because we put clear blue water between us and the Tories.”

But an angry Mr Harris denied to PinkNews on Sunday that he had ever made the comment, saying: “It is a very poor of Ben to invent a quote and claim it is all that was said.”

The former MP stressed: “If I said that I would have said ‘it puts clear pink water between us and the Tories’, and it would not have been all that I said.

“There is nothing wrong with saying that anyway (unless it was the only thing I said or believed and no one else was saying anything else) because the nature of politics means you have to put pressure on the Tories on this issue to get anywhere.”

Mr Harris referred to the full quotation he had provided to The Guardian where he actually said the motion “would ‘test’ the Conservatives’ commitment to equality.”

On Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg waded into the row. A senior source close to the Liberal Democrat leader described Mr Summerkill’s remarks as “ludicrous”.

The Deputy Prime Minister’s spokesman told “People will be sad and disappointed to see Mr Summerskill trying to divide supporters of LGBT equality.

“Nick Clegg was the first leader of a political party to support marriage equality. He did this before entering government and his words remain on record for all to see. On entering coalition, we took the opportunity to right a wrong. Love is the same, gay or straight, so the civil institution should be the same, too.

“There was considerable cross-party support  for equal marriage as the bill was going through Parliament.  Liberal Democrats are immensely proud of the role we played in this historic legislation.”

Mr Summerskill’s comments also angered International Development Minister Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrats’ former equalities minister.

“Wow, I’m really upset by that, really upset.” She said yesterday that Mr Summerskill’s claims are “absolute rubbish. We are the party of equality and Ben knows that. It wasn’t in the manifesto probably because no one thought it could be achieved – not because of any lack of desire to do it.

“I wasn’t going to raise this, but it has to be said that Stonewall wasn’t in favour of equal marriage and they changed – and I’m very grateful they changed. It is somewhat upsetting to hear that that is his attitude. I thought we were all working together on this. I’m very surprised and disappointed to hear him say that. It’s completely unnecessary.”

Mr Summerskill resigned as the boss of Stonewall last month after 11 years at the helm of Britain’s largest gay rights charity.