Members of Parliament tonight overwhelming endorsed historic legislation that will give gay couples the equal right to marry.
Almost half a century after homosexuality was legalised in Britain the House of Commons voted by a majority of 400 to 175 to redefine marriage and make it available to all.
But the Tory rebellion was larger than expected with initial indications suggesting that more Conservative MPs voted against equal marriage than in favour. There were 75 abstentions.
Nick Clegg hailed the vote as a “landmark for equality in Britain” which showed “no matter who you are and who you love, we are all equal” while Ed Miliband said it was “an important step forward in the fight for equality in Britain”.
But seven hours of intense and often heartfelt debate revealed deep divisions on both sides of the House over the proposals.
Dozens of Conservatives, including a cabinet minister, defied the appeals of David Cameron to vote against changing the law claiming it would impinge upon religious freedoms.
A number of Labour and Liberal Democrats also chose to vote against the Bill that now faces a bruising passage through committee and the House of Lords before almost certainly becoming law later this year.
To the dismay of gay marriage supporters neither David Cameron nor the string of senior Conservative ministers who have recently come out to back the change sat in the Commons as the Culture Secretary Maria Miller outlined the Government’s plans.
In recent days Mr Cameron has also declined to reiterate his public support for the Bill with Downing Street insisting it was a genuinely free vote.
However an hour before the vote he recorded a last minute television interview saying the move would make society stronger.
“Marriage helps people commit to each other and I think it is right that gay people should be able to get married too,“ he said.
”This is, yes, about equality. But it is also about making our society stronger”
Ms Miller said the bill would allow society to recognise in law that gay couples had the same “depth of feeling, love and commitment” as heterosexual couples.
“I don’t think it’s the role of Government to tell people what to believe,” she said.
“But I do think that Parliament and the state have a responsibility to treat people fairly.”
Unusually she was forcefully backed up by her Labour opposite number Yvette Cooper. While the Labour frontbench strongly support the move a number of their MPs voted against the motion.
“We should not hide discrimination by calling it definition instead,” she said.
“Marriage has changed many times over the centuries…and it should change again.
“Society hasn’t collapsed. If marriage is to stay relevant, to stay important and to remain a crucial part of our family and social relationships, then it also has to remain in tune with the values of every generation
“And that means it should keep up with rightly changing attitudes towards homosexuality too.”
A significant number of gay MPs made passionate and moving speeches urging their colleagues to support the legislation.
The Conservative MP Mike Freer, who was elected to Margaret Thatcher’s old seat of Finchley in 2010 told MPs: “I sit alongside you in committees, in the bars and in the tea rooms.
“I queue alongside you in the division lobbies but when it comes to marriage why are you asking me to stand apart and join a separate queue?
“If I am equal in this House give me every opportunity to be equal. Today we have a chance to set that right.”
The Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Gilbert described the difficulties of growing up as a gay man in Cornwall.
“I am a gay man who grew up in a rural part of our country from a working class background. It was an environment which made it hugely difficult to be open, honest and upfront with my family, friends and fellow workmates.
“That was unacceptable 20 years ago it is unacceptable today. But for many hundreds of thousands of people it remains the case. I think this legislation will send a signal that this house values everybody equally. That signal will deeply affect people like me.”
Other heterosexual MPs also made powerful interventions in favour of the move.
The former Labour minister David Lammy dismissed suggestion that it somehow undermined Christianity.
“The Jesus I know was an illegitimate refugee born with a death sentence on his head,” he said.
“He would stand up for minorities”.
But others expressed strident opposition to the proposal arguing it was a slippery slope that would lead to churches being forced to marry same sex couples. They also pointed out that the measure did not attract widespread national support and had not been any of the party’s manifestos.
“The product of this bill will end up before the courts will end up before the European Court of Human Rights and people of faith will find that faith being trampled on,” said the Conservative MP Roger Gale.
“That to us is intolerable. It is not possible to redefine marriage. Marriage is the union between and man and a woman. It is Alice in Wonderland territory, Orwellian almost for any Government to seek to come along and rewrite the lexicon.”
The Gerald Howarth said: “I believe marriage can only be between a man and a woman and I shall not surrender my principles.I believe this bill is wrong.”
The Labour MP Robert Flello became the first member of his party to pledge to vote against the Bill tonight.
He said: “I’m deeply concerned about the divisions and upset this issue has caused on both sides of the argument. Some of that is because the debate has been characterised as bigoted religion on one hand versus equality on the other.
“Neither of those are true. True Christians are not bigoted and this is actually not a matter of equality, no matter how often it is referred to as equal marriage.
”Civil partnerships are equal to marriage – they might not have the same name but they are equal.
He added the Bill would create two forms of marriage – traditional marriage and same sex marriage – which were still not “equal” with the plans trying to “engineer cultural equivalence”.
55 MPs defied a three line whip to vote against a motion ensuring that the bill can pass smoothly through Parliament without being “talked out”.