David Cameron is set to give his MPs a free vote on whether gay couples should be allowed to marry, after a major rebellion by his own ministers.
Downing Street initially suggested that the Cabinet and junior ministers could be required to support the plans when new laws allowing same-sex marriage are debated in the Commons.
However, after a series of senior government figures expressed their dismay at the development, Number 10 sources pledged to allow MPs to vote with their consciences.
Gerald Howarth, a defence minister, welcomed the decision, saying last night that it was “absolutely right and proper” for MPs to be allowed a free vote.
... senior Conservatives privately believe the policy is a Liberal Democrat-inspired distraction from more urgent tasks, such as addressing unemployment and securing the economic recovery.
On Tuesday, it emerged that Owen Paterson, the Northern Ireland Secretary, opposed the introduction of civil marriage for same-sex couples.
In a letter to a constituent last week, Mr Paterson said he supported other measures taken to increase the rights of homosexuals in Britain and around the world.
However, he said after “having considered this matter carefully” he had “come to the decision not to support gay marriage”.
Other ministers who have signalled their concerns over the issue in recent weeks include Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, Tim Loughton, the children’s minister, and Mr Howarth.