A matter of timing

As MPs prepare to register a vote on gay marriage, the atmosphere in the Commons is….mostly blasé on the Labour and Lib Dem side; tense and rather angry on the Conservative side.

To be sure there are Labour and even Lib Dem MPs on both side of today's argument...but they seemed almost carefree, compared to most Conservatives I spoke to.

A walk around Portcullis House this morning found MPs muttering about the fire and brimstone sermons they'd heard at church on Sunday, leafing through briefings from the Church of England and studying letters from their local bishop. All parties were feeling the heat, but the real angst was among Conservatives - not just because a lot of Tories instinctively disliked the bill, but also because of the way such a toxic issue had been handled.

Take the forthcoming Eastleigh by-election. Many Conservatives looked forward to road-testing their new line on an EU referendum in what will inevitably be a high profile by-election. But will they now find themselves trying to stop their rivals in UKIP using gay marriage to shake their traditional supporters loose?

Several Conservative MPs mentioned the unrest the issue provokes in the ranks, and note that the timing is particularly unfortunate as the English County Council elections loom in May. Rather than rallying the troops for a major electoral test, they're having to soothe the upset and talk down those threatening to desert.

And to borrow Churchill's phrase: "This is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end…." Today's second reading of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill marks only the first stage of a the parliamentary processing of gay marriage. And plenty of tripwires will remain, even after this evening's votes on the bill and the programme motion, which will set out the timetable for further consideration. This bill will still be live as the by-election and county election campaigns gather pace.

It's this timing that mystifies and infuriates many on the Conservative benches. Why not announce a draft bill in the Queen's Speech, set up a scrutiny committee and debate and consult at length, they ask. Why upset the troops now? And - free vote or not - this angst will not be contained by some "electrified ring-fence"; it will spill over into other issues and could cost ministers dear.

Incidentally, I don't buy the view that this bill will never get through the Lords - I suspect the overwhelming majority of Labour and Lib Dem peers, plus quite a number of Conservatives and crossbenchers, will vote for it, and it will pass the Upper House quite comfortably.

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