22/08/2012 04:12 BST | Updated 31/01/2013 15:37 GMT

Lord Ashcroft Poll On Gay Marriage Suggests Many Are Oblivious Or Indifferent

Large swathes of the public aren't interested in the gay marriage debate one way or the other - with many not even knowing it was on the political agenda. Such are the findings of a poll conducted by Tory party grandee Lord Ashcroft, published on Wednesday. The influential Conservative peer suggests his poll serves to dismiss claims that David Cameron's decision to push ahead with gay marriage would cost him votes at the next general election.

According to the polling data around 31% of respondents were opposed to gay marriage, and within that third of the population only 12% said it would affect their vote.

Overall 41% of people were in favour of gay marriage, and 27% said they had no opinion one way or the other.

Writing on Conservativehome.com Lord Ashcroft claims: "Most people had not heard the issue was on the agenda. When it was raised, they tended to be very relaxed about the idea. By far the most common reaction was that if gay people wanted to get married, by all means let them get on with it; if the church did not want to take part, it should not (and need not) be compelled to."

Ashcroft concludes: "I understand that an issue like this cannot, and perhaps should not, be reduced to an electoral equation of whether the Party is ahead on a net sum basis. For many on both sides of the debate, it is a question that transcends politics, one of principle on which public opinion is effectively immaterial.

"Of course MPs who feel this should vote with their consciences. But those who argue that gay marriage is a clear-cut net vote loser - and that abandoning the idea would help the Conservatives towards a majority - should examine the evidence more carefully."

The government is considering responses to a consultation carried out during the spring on gay marriage, with indications that it will bring forward legislation early in 2013. David Cameron outlined his desire to see gay marriage at last year's Conservative Party Conference, upsetting some traditionalists within his party.

Last week the Coalition for Marriage published a poll suggesting that Christian Tory voters might stay at home on the day of the next general election, if Cameron introduced gay marriage. The poll - which like Ashcroft's does not carry the reputational weight of the larger polling firms - suggested 6 out of 10 churchgoers were less likely to vote Tory next time if gay weddings became a reality in England and Wales.

Scotland has its own legislative timetable on gay marriage, and has already said that churches will be allowed to conduct ceremonies if they want to. The SNP government is likely to introduce legislation in the autumn.

Because Scotland won't have to get its proposals through the House of Lords - where Cameron can expect stiff opposition from a vocal minority - it seems likely that Scotland will be the first place in the UK to hold gay ceremonies, perhaps as early as next year.