Gay marriage: Cameron's plea to activists as Commons debate continues

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Reposted from BBC:

David Cameron has sought to mend fences with Conservative activists angry over claims an ally of his called them "swivel-eyed loons".

MPs are continuing to debate plans to legalise same-sex marriage in England and Wales on Tuesday after surviving opposition led by Tory backbenchers.

But Mr Cameron has emailed all Tory activists to say he would never employ someone who "sneered" at them.

Lord Feldman has denied making the alleged comment about Tory activists.

The Tory party co-chairman is alleged to have made the remarks to newspaper reporters in relation to Europe.

But Tory backbenchers say the comments, if true, illustrate the "growing gap" between Mr Cameron's inner circle and ordinary party members.

Civil partnership

Tensions between Downing Street and grassroots Tories have also been fuelled by the same sex marriage proposals, with 136 backbench Tory MPs voting on Monday against the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill.

The bill cleared its second reading in the Commons with support from Labour and Lib Dem MPs.

It is due to receive its third Commons reading later on Tuesday but is not expected to face opposition on the same scale as Monday's vote.

It could face further objections when it goes to the House of Lords on Wednesday and, if peers make changes to the Bill, they will have to be approved by MPs at a later date.

Proposals to also allow heterosexual couples to take up civil partnerships were rejected by MPs on Monday.

They instead backed a Labour plan to consult on civil partnership changes soon - rather than after five years.

In his email to Conservative activists, Mr Cameron said party members would not agree on everything and there would always be "criticism from the sidelines".

'Civic pride'

But he urged them to focus on what they had in common and on the bigger picture and said he was "proud" of the work they had done and of their "deep and lasting friendship" with him.

"Time and again, Conservative activists like you stand for duty, decency and civic pride," he said.

"That's why I am proud to lead this party. I am proud of what you do. And I would never have around me those who sneered or thought otherwise."

The PM needs the support of grassroots activists to help him campaign for an outright majority at the next general election.

But there is anger among some at his stance on gay marriage and Europe, with reports of defections to the UK Independence Party.

Tory MP Brian Binley, who has led calls for an investigation into Lord Feldman's alleged comments, said the prime minister had "done a few things that the party in the country overall didn't want him to do".

He added: "He may believe in them but we are talking about the gap between himself and the party.

"I think it is a growing gap, I think it can be put right and I think David Cameron is listening as proved by the fact that actions are now being taken."

The government wants gay couples to be able to marry in England and Wales as soon as next summer.

'Legal recognition'

MPs will vote later on an amendment to the Bill, put forward by the Humanist Association, to allow officially recognised groups, such as charities or voluntary organisations, to officiate at marriage ceremonies.

At the moment, anyone taking part in a humanist ceremony must still have their marriage made legal through a register office. Humanist ceremonies have been a fully legal form of marriage in Scotland since 2005.

Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, said: "The amendment does not open up legal recognition for any new weddings other than humanist ones.

"Humanist weddings are popular and meaningful and legal recognition for them would be fair, timely, and not at all controversial."

But Conservative MP Sir Tony Baldry said the plan was "not a particularly sensible amendment, whichever side of the argument you're on".

MPs supporting the amendment do not expect to win and the BBC's Norman Smith said that while ministers were prepared to listen, they did not think the bill was the "right vehicle" to make such a change.

MPs will also debate related issues, such as the definition of non-religious marriage, proposals for "civil unions" between gay and heterosexual couples and changes to the benefits system arising from the legalisation of gay marriage.

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