Conservative opposition to the coalition's plans to legalise gay marriage has rallied in Birmingham, raising the possibility of a serious grassroots revolt over the issue.
Former MP Ann Widdecombe electrified members of the audience at a 'Coalition For Marriage' event held at Birmingham Town Hall, close to the main conference centre in Britain's second city.
A capacity audience of 1,100 watched Widdecombe warn the prime minister that his personal "conviction" about same-sex marriage was "doing a lot of damage in the party", prompting huge applause from the gathered crowd.
"This is not an anti-gay rally. It is for defining marriage, full stop," Widdecombe declared. She directly took on Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister Nick Clegg's speechwriters, who called opponents of the plans "bigots" in a draft speech.
"I think we do have to not just say 'we're not bigots', but rather to challenge their own bigotry," she said, to applause.
"Is there really no room for two views on this? Is there really no room for a proper examination of the alternative view to theirs? I think we need to throw the 'bigot' label back on them. Anybody who says you're a bigot if you disagree with them is a bigot."
Eighty-six per cent of members of the public say it is possible to be tolerant of the rights of others while being protective of the "traditional rights of many" at the same time, Widdecombe argued.
Supporters of gay marriage claim equality under the law for same-sex couples will not be complete until civil partnerships are replaced by 'marriage', however. The Church of England has threatened that such moves could lead to its disestablishment.
Widdecombe repeatedly returned to her argument that the coalition's plans to legislate for gay marriage were undermining civil liberties.
"MPs are free to speak their minds... but the people they govern are no longer free to speak their minds," she claimed.
"No society can be free without the freedom to dissent and no democracy real without the recognition of a plurality of views... David Cameron: Tell me how a party devoted to freedom, a party that has always opposed oppression and the power of the state over the individual, can even contemplate creating such a Britain?"
Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey said that Christians in Britain were being "too timid about standing up for our future".
"It is going to threaten the church-state relationship very profoundly indeed," he warned, before attacking politicians for interfering in issues of morality.
"Please don't dabble in the one institution which is going strong," Carey added. "We need to strengthen marriage, not weaken it."