Tony Blair backed down last night in the face of a full-scale cabinet revolt over an exemption for the Roman Catholic Church over gay adoption rights.
The Prime Minister proposed allowing the church a lengthy delay before it has to accept applications from gay couples for adoption, but there would be no legal exemption from equality laws.
The argument now will centre on the length of delay allowed for Catholic adoption agencies to change their stance, or be phased out. Ministers opposing any exemption want the transitional period to be no more than six months.
Mr Blair was forced into retreat after cabinet colleagues came out against the exemption. Opposition was reinforced at a meeting between Mr Blair and two Labour MPs, Angela Eagle and Chris Bryant, who are leading the campaign against the church’s demand for an opt-out from the Equality Act, which bans discrimination in the provision of services on grounds of sexuality.
Ms Eagle said: “I am prepared to be flexible but not about giving people a right to opt out of fair treatment for all … A delay lasting years would not be acceptable.” With feelings running high, Downing Street tried to hose down speculation at Westminster that ministers had threatened to resign if the Catholic Church were given any special treatment.
The affair has also become a test of Mr Blair’s authority in his final months at No 10. Several cabinet ministers spoke out publicly against any watering down of the Act.