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News, gossip and insight from PoliticsHome Editor Paul Waugh

And Cleggy makes Free

The PM was first to declare gay marriage would be a free vote. Then yesterday morning Ed Miliband followed suit.

Now Nick Clegg too is shying from whip.

Yes, the DPM has agreed with his MPs that this should be a free vote rather than a whipped vote.

Miliband and Clegg's change of heart is notable because both of them have previously argued that this is not a 'matter of conscience' and is more a matter of rights. Both have in the past pointed out that Labour whipped the civil partnerships bill because Tony Blair felt it was an issue of rights, not personal moral preference.

Clegg told Marr this May:

“In the same way the civil partnerships legislation which was introduced under Labour was a whipped vote, I personally don’t think this is something which should be subject to a great free for all because we are not asking people to make a decision of conscience. If this was an issue that somehow the government was proposing something that would somehow be an imposition on religion or the churches then of course that would be a matter of conscience. We are not.”

Yesterday's Milller proposals made clear there would indeed by no question of imposing anything on a religion (in fact gay marriage in the CofE is to be made illegal).

But last night at an Out4Marriage event, Clegg told PinkNews something quite different:

"I’m not going to be illiberal in pushing through a liberal measure. I just fully expect Liberal Democrat MPs will vote in favour of something that we have recently formally adopted as our party policy in the Liberal Democrats....so in a sense I think the whipping arrangements are slightly here nor there, because I think this will get a thumping vote of support from Liberal Democrat MPs.”

That was a hint enough, but party sources have confirmed to me that there will definitely be a free vote.  A source tells me Clegg was given this message by his own MPs at the Lib Dem Parliamentary party meeting: "Our MPs were clear they wanted to support gay marriage because it was right, not because it was a whipped vote."

Labour expects about 20% of its MPs to vote against gay marriage (many of them Catholics), but the Lib Dems may not have any dissenters.

The DPM also probably feels that having gained the PM's support for fasttracking this bill, he can try to ease the pressure on his colleague by agreeing a free vote all round. I suspect Labour only agreed a free vote because they knew it would give Tory ministers and backbenchers licence to appear like the 'same old Tories'.

But on the wider issue, some gay rights activists may be disappointed that a free vote encourages the rhetoric that this is indeed about personal conscience rather than equal rights.

 

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