Clegg waters down language against gay marriage enemies

One of the first gay marriages in New York City
One of the first gay marriages in New York City
Alex Stevenson By

Nick Clegg has shied away from taking on gay marriage "bigots" ahead of a reception tonight to celebrate the coalition's policy.

The deputy prime minister had been expected to attack those opposed to equal marriage as "bigots" in an early draft of his remarks distributed to journalists.

"Continued trouble in the economy gives the bigots a stick to beat us with, as they demand we 'postpone' the equalities agenda in order to deal with 'the things people really care about'," he had been expected to say.

The b-word was subsequently removed and replaced with "some people", setting up the prospect of a less pugnacious tone in Clegg's speech at a reception this evening.

While tweeters mocked the deputy prime minister and his staff for making life resemble art - the first episode of the new series of The Thick Of It aired this weekend - Cabinet Office press officers insisted the original version had been "incorrect and sent to you in error".

Many Conservative backbenchers have reservations about the reforms, arguing that ministers should have other priorities amid the ongoing double-dip recession.

Despite the watered-down tone, Clegg will nevertheless address their concerns head on as he addresses an audience of celebrity campaigners, religious figures, activists and politicians.

"As if pursuing greater equality and fixing the economy simply cannot happen at once.

"So I want you to hear it straight from me tonight: the idea that the two are mutually exclusive is utter rubbish. A nonsense this coalition government will never bow to."

Prime minister David Cameron has made clear he backs the policy, saying he was "absolutely determined" to push through the legislation implementing the shift in the current parliament.

His enthusiasm has forced him into confrontation with the Church of England, which opposes gay marriage and has threatened it could lead to its disestablishment. Downing Street has already conceded it will give MPs a free vote on the issue when it comes before the Commons, rather than making it a question of party discipline.

The equal marriage consultation has received over 228,000 responses, which is thought to be a record.

"Not everyone in those 228,000 will be pro, that's for sure," Clegg will acknowledge.

"But you certainly can't dispute the strong feeling on both sides."

He will argue the British principle of tolerance as reflected in the Olympics will be put to a serious test when it comes to the gay marriage debate.

Clegg will add: "We saw the forces of openness and tolerance reclaim the Union Jack. We showcased ourselves not as big and imperial and imposing, a nation constantly harking back to some bygone age, but as a nation that revels in its warmth; that is intelligent; diverse, generous and joyous; a nation able to own the future and lead the world because we have the right spirit, the right values, the right ideas.

"And of all those ideas, none can be more fundamental than the belief that people should be able to love whomever they choose; that we should let one another be, free from discrimination and able to enjoy the full equality that is each of our right."

Religious opposition to the reforms appears the biggest threat to Clegg's plans. Earlier this year the UK's senior Catholic, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, called the proposal "madness" and "grotesque". The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children has pledged to draw attention to the issue in marginal constituencies during the 2015 campaign.

According to the Coalition for Equal Marriage, which is monitoring MPs' publicly stated voting intentions on the issue, 261 MPs are likely to vote in favour and 75 against. The most divided party is the Conservatives, with 71 in favour and 60 against.

Although question-marks remain over 314 MPs, support for Clegg's reforms from Labour and the Liberal Democrats is likely to overwhelm opposition from Tory backbenchers.


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