Ahead of a crunch vote on same-sex marriage, David Cameron makes a last-minute televised statement in the hope of convincing Conservative MPs to back his plans.
Speaking shortly before MPs vote on the gay marriage bill, the prime minister said: “Today is an important day. I am a strong believer in marriage. It helps people commit to each other and I think it is right that gay people should be able to get married too.
“This is, yes, about equality. But it is also about making our society stronger.”
Culture Secretary Maria Miller opened the debate on the gay marriage bill, which scores of Conservative MPs are expected to vote against.
Most Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs are in favour, and David Cameron is hoping a majority of his MPs – 152 – support the legislation.
The mood of Conservative opponents was summed up by former defence minister Gerald Howarth, who said the government had no mandate for such a “massive social and cultural change”.
His colleague Edward Leigh, who has six children, said the concept of marriage had “always been bestowed with a vision of procreation”, adding: “Every marriage has procreating potential in that it brings potential biologically the two elements needed to generate a child.”
Mr Leigh said the Conservative party should be protecting “cherished institutions” and was in danger of “alienating people who have voted for all their lives”.
But his parliamentary colleague Mike Freer, who is in a civil partnership, was listened to in silence as he complained about the language used about gay marriage.
“When they talked about gay marriage making them physically sick, when colleagues suggested it was a step towards legalising polygamy or incest, they need to remember there are people involved.”
Mrs Miller said: “We are doing this very clearly as an important part of the way we can make this country a fairer place to live. The depth of feeling, love and commitment is no different between same-sex couples than opposite-sex couples.”
Referring to religious objections to the bill, Mrs Miller said: “It’s important to remember that religious views on same-sex marriage do differ too, whether it’s the Quaker, the Unitarian or the Liberal Jewish communities. All of those have said that they want to conduct same-sex marriages.”
In the bill, Church of England clergy are exempted from carrying out same-sex weddings, but Tory MP Sir Tony Baldry, who speaks for the church in the Commons and plans to vote against, said he was worried the European court of human rights could force clergy to perform gay marriages.
In response, Mrs Miller said this was “inconceivable”. Her arguments were supported by Tory MP Nick Herbert, who is in a civil partnership. He said: “We, the defenders of marriage, should be gratefully opening the doors, yet the reaction of some has been to slam the doors shut.”
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: “Let’s celebrate, not discriminate, and let’s be on the right side of history and vote for this bill today.”
More than 120 Conservative MPs are likely to vote against the legislation at the end of today’s second reading, but it will go through because of Labour and Lib Dem votes.
Labour MP Robert Flello said he would vote against, while his colleague Jim Dobbin said the bill was “hasty and destructive”. Former Labour minister Stephen Timms said he would vote against the bill at third reading because he believed “the principle of marriage was to bring chilldren into the world”.
Read more: Gay marriage bill – key questions answered
Before the debate began, three senior cabinet ministers, Chancellor George Osborne, Foreign Secretary William Hague and Home Secretary Theresa May, warned that voting for gay marriage was “the right thing to do”, despite Conservative divisions and the prospect that David Cameron faces being deserted by more than half of his MPs.
In a joint letter to he Daily Telegraph, they questioned whether it was “any longer acceptable to exclude people from marriage simply because they love someone of the same sex”.
All three main party leaders are allowing a free vote on what is seen as a conscience issue, although the programme motion for the timetabling of the bill’s passage through parliament is whipped and could serve as a test of the prime minister’s authority.
A poll last night suggested Mr Cameron’s drive to legalise gay marriage could cost the Conservatives more votes than it wins.