By Patrick Hennessy, Political Editor - 26 May 2012
Plans to legalise same-sex marriage are the number one issue in MPs’ postbags – with an overwhelming majority of voters opposed to the move – according to a new poll.
The survey of MPs from across the political spectrum by ComRes also shows that only one in 25 parliamentarians believes that allowing gay unions is a main priority for voters.
The poll comes in the wake of a growing number of Conservative heavyweights declaring that they do not support moves to allow same-sex marriage by law by the time of the next election, May 2015.
Last week Downing Street backed down by signalling that there would a “free vote” on the issue in parliament – as is traditional with matters of conscience – in what has become a divisive issue for the coalition.Earlier senior sources had indicated that the measure would be “whipped” – meaning that ministers would have to support government plans.
Campaigners believe up to five cabinet ministers would vote against same-sex marriage in the Commons, three of whom are claimed to be Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, Owen Patterson, the Northern Ireland Secretary and Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary.
By contrast, Theresa May, the Home Secretary, last week recorded a video in support of the proposals, saying “marriage should be for everyone.” Her intervention was seen as highly significant since she is the minister leading the public consultation on the plans.
David Cameron is said to remain firmly committed to allowing same-sex marriage – despite his stance being held at least partly to blame by some Tory MPs for his party’s poor showing in this month’s local elections. Liberal Democrat ministers are strong supporters of the move.
Ministers are expected to press ahead with plans, permitting same-sex unions in non-religious venues, within the next year. With Labour supporting the move it would be assured of a majority in the Commons – but would run into significant opposition in the Lords.
The survey, commissioned by the Coalition for Marriage (C4M), which is leading the campaign against the government’s proposals, shows that same-sex marriage is the issue which most stands out in MPs correspondence from voters.
According to the polls, findings, seen by The Sunday Telegraph, around one in three MPs (34 per cent) cited it as one of the main concerns raised with them by voters, putting ahead of welfare reform (23 per cent), NHS reform (19 per cent), pensions (13 per cent), fuel prices (13 per cent), fuel taxes (13 per cent), unemployment and jobs (8 per cent) and the Budget (8 per cent).
Asked how voters divide on the issue, MPs say their constituents are overwhelmingly against – with, on average, three in four voters either opposed to the measure (19 per cent) or strongly opposed (55 per cent), according to the MPs’ assessments. Just 16 per cent of those who are in touch with their MPs support the plans.
Strong opposition to the move is reported by MPs of all three main parties, with Conservatives getting the heaviest flak from voters. Among Tories, 45 per cent say that letters and emails opposing same-sex marriage are the number one item in their postbag and email accounts – with the figure falling to 30 per cent of Lib Dems and 23 per cent of Labour MPs.
Asked what issues matter most to their constituents, MPs cite fuel tax (79 per cent), cutting the deficit (74 per cent) and ensuring the tax burden is “spread fairly” overall (69 per cent).
Gay marriage is cited by just four per cent of MPs as a key priority for their constituents, just one per cent ahead of House of Lords reform.
Colin Hart, Campaign Director of C4M, said: “This poll shows that, right across the Commons, MPs do not regard gay marriage as an important priority.
“It also demonstrates that public opposition to the measure is vociferous and widespread.
“If Ministers decide to press ahead regardless of popular opinion, they will further undermine public confidence in Parliament and reinforce the growing impression that the ruling elite is out of touch with the strongly-held concerns and opinions of the British people.
“David Cameron should drop this idea before it causes yet more social divisions and ill-feeling.”
Andrew Hawkins, Chief Executive of ComRes said: “Clearly this issue has touched a raw nerve with the public, and not in a positive way.
“It is however entirely in line with public polling which shows that Mr Cameron’s stance on same-sex marriage has already cost the Conservatives some support and could well be responsible for a number of the party’s MPs losing their seats at the next election.”