Lawmakers voted in favour of controversial legislation allowing gay marriage despite fierce opposition from members of Prime Minister David Cameron’s own party.
The move puts Britain on track to join the 10 countries that allow same-sex couples to marry, but Cameron had the embarrassment of seeing more than half of his Conservative legislators refusing to back him.
The prime minister insisted that the plan to allow same-sex couples to marry in England and Wales would “make our society stronger”, although the draft law still has several other parliamentary hurdles to clear.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who leads the Conservatives’ junior coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, hailed the result as a “landmark for equality”.
The vote passed by 400 to 175, mainly because it had overwhelming support from the Lib Dems and opposition Labour Party.
But just 127 of Cameron’s 303 Conservatives voted in favour of the plans, with 136 voting against and 40 more either formally abstaining or not voting.
Two Conservative cabinet ministers, Owen Paterson and David Jones, were among those who voted against, while Defence Secretary Philip Hammond and Attorney General Dominic Grieve stayed away.
Cameron had allowed lawmakers a free vote on the issue, meaning they were not directed by party managers.
Opponents attacked the bill during an often impassioned day-long debate ahead of the vote in the House of Commons, or lower house of parliament.
Pleas from Cameron’s heavyweight cabinet allies to persuade their Conservative colleagues to back his plans and avoid damaging divisions fell on deaf ears.
A former junior defence minister, Gerald Howarth, said the government had no mandate for such a “massive social and cultural change”.
Another Conservative opponent, Roger Gale, said the legislation was “Orwellian”.
Same-sex couples in Britain have had the right to live in civil partnerships since 2005 but cannot marry.
Culture Secretary Maria Miller, the minister responsible for the legislation, insisted the bill would protect religious freedoms and “not marginalise those who believe marriage should be between a man and a woman”.
The proposals are opposed by the Church of England and its new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, but the legislation bans the established churches of England and Wales from offering gay marriage.
No place of worship of any faith would be legally required to carry out gay marriages under the draft law.
Britain’s Wednesday newspapers said the vote had alienated Cameron from many members of his own party and could have far-reaching political consequences ahead of the next general election in 2015.
The right-leaning Daily Telegraph said Cameron had “sown needless discord” in his party, while the Guardian said the result showed that the Conservatives were “hellbent” on losing the next election.
But the left-leaning Independent dished out rare praise for the prime minister, saying he “should be congratulated on his clear judgement, his common decency and his leading from the front”.
The bill must next be scrutinised by a committee of lawmakers and then go before the upper chamber the House of Lords before becoming law.
While a majority of people in Britain back gay marriage, polls show that Cameron’s strong support for the issue could undermine his party’s chances at the next election.
The issue has not however sparked the impassioned protests seen in France, where the National Assembly on Saturday overwhelmingly approved a key piece of legislation that will allow homosexual couples to marry and adopt children.