Tomorrow, the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths Bill – which would allow opposite sex couples to enter into civil partnerships – gets its second reading in the Lords. The bill has already made it through the Commons; and if the formidable Equal Civil Partnerships lobby group succeeds, it will become law by the end of the year. Supporters of the bill say it is a minor and sensible tweak to messy marriage legislation. They make the argument that a system allowing gay couples to choose a civil partnership over marriage, if it suits their purposes, but doesn’t afford the same privilege to straight couples is quirky and unfair. The legislation provides Parliament with a harmless way of fixing this. But the bill's supporters are ignoring the reality: allowing straight people to have civil partnerships is a big mistake.
Penny Mordaunt, the pragmatic and ambitious women and equalities minister, initially appeared to be moving towards consigning civil partnerships – obsolete since the introduction of same-sex marriage – to the history books. But she seems to have had a change of heart. Now she claims that the bill 'is an important step forward for equality'. So what explains this apparent change in thinking? Mordaunt hasn’t been clear, but a shrewd guess might be that on seeing the appetite for civil partnerships among the gay community declining year-on-year, she calculated that only a vanishingly small minority of straight couples would reject marriage in favour of the newly legalised equivalent. In which case, she may have reasoned, old-fashioned social conservatives would barely notice the unwelcome change, and she could scoop up some progressive brownie points without much repercussion.
It was a grave miscalculation. PACS, the French equivalent of the British civil partnership, has massively taken off among the heterosexual community (the number of opposite-sex couples opting for a PACS over a marriage has been steadily increasing year-on-year) and if the excitement around the Steinfeld case – the heterosexual couple who won a legal fight to have a civil partnership – is anything to go by, heterosexual civil partnerships could well go mainstream in the UK very quickly indeed.
Who would lead the charge? The likes of Mr Keidan and Ms Steinfeld, the couple spearheading the equal civil partnerships movement, of course, and a few other similarly woke individuals who are deeply in love but unable to abide the thought of marriage and the patriarchal baggage associated with it. But there will also be those with other motives. For anyone who fancies the financial perks of marriage but isn’t so keen on the deep pledges and grave commitment associated with the institution, civil partnerships will seem like a very attractive option indeed.
So with lightning speed (by parliamentary standards) and with very little scrutiny, a bill is progressing through Parliament which will have a profound and long lasting effect on the social fabric of Britain. Marriage-lite, as civil partnerships will inevitably become, is almost certain to result in more children growing up in single parent families; parents who are after financial union but reluctant to be bonded by vows are less likely than married couples to stick together through thick and thin.
What’s more, the new legislation has opened a can of worms over what kind of relationships deserve what is, in effect, state sponsorship. Since civil partnerships, unlike marriage, come with no expectation of a sexual relationship (one of the few legal differences between the institutions is that a marriage but not a civil partnership can be dissolved on the grounds of adultery) platonic friends are perfectly free to enter into them. And given that a civil partnership is a convenient and financially savvy way of joining assets when buying a property, it’s easy to see why they would.
But if friends can enjoy the fiscal benefits of a state sponsored union, then what about an elderly parent and her carer offspring? Or siblings, who’ve chosen to cohabit all their lives? Because blood relatives are barred from civil partnerships, sisters like my mother and aunt, who have jointly raised me in a shared home and who I consider my equal co-parents, are exempt from the essential rights afforded to civil partners and married couples. This includes, most importantly, the right to pass on their joint home, one to the other, free of inheritance tax.
Theresa May, a vicar's daughter with small c conservative family values, must be aware of the damage this new legislation risks. But she threw her weight behind the bill regardless, unable to resist a bit of easy praise from noisy, progressive lobby groups. And this, as we’ve seen time and time again, is the problem with a Prime Minister desperate to cling onto power for as long as possible. Every time a difficult decision comes up, she will put short term optics over the long term health of the country.
In her first move in office, the PM – desperate to get diversity conscious commentators on side – picked for her cabinet the perfect balance of men and women, leavers and remainers, graduates and non-graduates. The fact that many were substandard careerists with no expertise or vision didn’t seem to matter at all. If Theresa May goes down with her withdrawal deal, it could well be that her final act as PM will be to nod through the legislation which will see heterosexual civil partnerships become legal. The tweets from the PC brigade will be spectacular. The long term consequences for the country dire. What a fitting way to say goodbye.