GAY and lesbian couples should be barred from marrying unless changes to the law are endorsed in a referendum, according to a North East MP.
Berwick Lib Dem Sir Alan Beith joined Tory rebels in backing an amendment demanding a public poll, as a crunch Commons vote on same-sex marriage highlighted deep divisions within the Conservative Party.
However, plans to allow gay marriage looked set to overcome their latest parliamentary hurdle last night after Labour and the Government signalled they were ready to work together to defeat a backbench bid to wreck the legislation in the House of Commons.
A source close to Culture Secretary Maria Miller said she was “very relaxed” about a Labour proposal for an immediate consultation on extending civil partnerships to heterosexual couples, designed to defuse Tory backbench demands for straight couples to be given equality with homosexuals and lesbians in this area.
The deal means that the first same-sex marriages could take place as early as next summer if the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill clears the House of Lords, where it is expected to meet strong resistance.
Sir Alan put his name to an amendment backed by 29 MPs, mostly Conservatives, which demanded a referendum to ask the public whether the law on marriage should be changed.
It came as a number of Tory rebels backed a separate amendment to allow heterosexual couples to have a civil partnership, which confers the same legal rights as marriage and is currently only available to same-sex couples.
This was opposed by the Government on the grounds that it would cost the Treasury £4bn in extra pension payments.
Downing Street called the proposal a “wrecking amendment” designed to block the same-sex marriage legislation or delay it for at least two years.
The battle over marriage is the latest in a series of setbacks for David Cameron which suggest there is a growing rift between the Conservative leader and his MPs and activists.
Last week, 114 Conservative MPs voted for an amendment regretting the lack of a promise to hold an EU referendum in the Queen’s Speech.
Mr Cameron is also under pressure over claims a senior ally, identified in news reports as party co-chairman Lord Feldman, described grass-roots members as “mad, swivel-eyed loons” because of their hostility towards the EU.
And UKIP took out a full page advert in a newspaper inviting disaffected Tories to join them.
Many Conservative MPs, including Hexham MP Guy Opperman, back same-sex marriage. But others have opposed the move, even though it has the personal backing of Mr Cameron.
It means the Prime Minister has to depend on the support of Labour MPs to get same-sex marriage on to the statute books.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper urged the Government to make a “sensible” response to the proposal, which she said could save the bill from being “sucked into the vortex of Tory infighting”.
“Labour votes have got this bill through so far and Labour votes will get this through the next couple of days, when the Government is deeply divided and fighting itself,” Ms Cooper said.