How the Houses stand

After a bruising in the Commons, following Edward Leigh's Urgent Question on gay marriage yesterday, the "no" lobby was nursing its contusions this morning; and contemplating the possibility that they could be debating the second reading of a Gay Marriage Bill as early as next Tuesday.

There's no business set down for Tuesday, so far, not even provisionally, and with the noes visibly off balance following David Cameron's declaration in support of same-sex marriages, even in Church, they suspect the government may seize the moment.

I'm not entirely convinced - my guess would be next Tuesday will find MPs debating Lords amendments to some bill or other. But the government might just decide to spring a December surprise. And the no lobby don't think they're ready. "We have most of the party grassroots behind us, but we're all over the place," one Conservative MP complained. "Where's our letter to the Telegraph? Where's our organisation in the Commons?" He thought the yes side of the argument was being organised, with fiendish efficiency, from George Osborne's office, and that his best hope of stopping the measure lay with their lordships.

I'm not so sure about that. It is true that the Lords put up a considerable battle against changes to the age of consent and other measures - and in January 2010, the (Labour) government was defeated on an amendment to the Equalities Bill that would have forced religious bodies to, for example, employ gay people.

That defeat was spearheaded by the Conservative, Lady O'Cathain, and was based on issues like freedom of association. But a more recent precedent is her motion, a year ago, to annul regulations to allow civil partnership ceremonies to be held in church - which had a rather frostier reception.

The regulations allowed religious premises to apply for a permit to perform civil partnerships, but only where the governing body of that religion had agreed. It was clear from the debate that the House did not accept this would put them on a slippery slope in human rights terms, and, in the end, the motion was not pushed to a vote.

Taken together with votes on the 2004 Civil Partnerships Act and the March 2010 vote on civil partnerships in religious buildings - an amendment to the Equalities Bill put down by a cross-party alliance involving Lord Ali, Lady Butler-Sloss and others, to omit the subsections from the 2004 Act that prevented civil registration in places of worship or religious premises, and was carried comfortably by a thinly-attended House - those results suggest that gay marriage should get through without too much trouble in the Lords.

Most House of Lords insiders expect a few socially conservative peers across parties to make a fuss, along with the Bishops, but they do not believe they will succeed in blocking gay marriageā€¦

These days it's the Lords which is the more liberal and civil libertarian House, they say.

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