Downing Street is very keen to emphasise that Tory MPs who vote against the second reading of the gay marriage bill tomorrow are not ‘rebels’. This is a free vote, and MPs can vote with their conscience. But this ignores the fact that there will be a rebellion tomorrow: not on the second reading, but on the programme motion.
I understand that at least one ministerial aide is likely to rebel against the three-line whip on this motion, which sets out how the Bill will proceed through the Commons. Other MPs who oppose the bill are also expected to defy the whip, although not in the same numbers as will vote against second reading, and without any greater effect as Labour is also whipping its MPs to support the motion. I’ve spoken to David Burrowes, PPS to Owen Paterson, who says he is unlikely to support it:
‘The precedent for this is the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, which was split between committee and committee of the whole house. Even Gordon Brown recognised that a free vote on conscience issues should be examined by the whole house.
‘But we are where we are. There will be a number who will not be supporting the government’s programme motion. But I do not think we will have the same numbers as on the second reading. I am not likely to be supporting the programme motion.’
As PPS, Burrowes cannot vote against the government without consequences, although he seems happy to wait and see what happens, rather than resigning in advance of his rebellion. He also hopes to sit on the Bill committee scrutinising the legislation line-by-line.
The make-up of that committee will be a test for the whips in both Conservative and Labour parties. It would clearly be expedient to staff the committee entirely with pro-equal marriage MPs, but this would be extremely difficult on a conscience issue.
Last week when the whips announced that the programme motion would have a three-line whip on it, there was some confusion in the party, with MPs initially fearing the whole bill would be whipped. I understand that within 45 minutes, another clarification appeared in MPs’ inboxes from the whip’s office to emphasise that second reading would remain a free vote.
P.S. If Burrowes does indeed rebel and face the usual consequences for doing so – whether by abstaining or actively voting against – he will be the third PPS to Owen Paterson to leave the government as a result of a rebellion: Stewart Jackson and Conor Burns being his predecessors.