09/12/2012 04:28 GMT | Updated 31/01/2013 15:05 GMT

Gay Marriage: Conservatives, Including Boris Johnson And Michael Gove, Form Campaign Group

Top Tories including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have defied party traditionalists by launching a new group to campaign for gay marriage.

The London mayor and Education Secretary are among more than a dozen senior figures backing moves to allow same-sex weddings to be held in places of worship.

The issue has sparked a serious rift in the Conservative Party, with more than 100 of its MPs expected to oppose the change in the Commons next year.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have launched a Conservative group which campaigns for gay marriage

Some have criticised David Cameron for "arrogance" in pushing ahead with the plans, despite his promise of a free vote.

Under the proposals, due to be fleshed out this week, churches and other venues will be allowed to "opt in" to holding civil marriage ceremonies.

Ministers will offer a guarantee that no institution will be forced to marry gay people on their premises - but Tory MPs and religious groups have questioned whether it would stand up to challenges under the Human Rights Act.

Legislation is expected to be introduced before Easter, and could take effect about a year later - with the first ceremonies likely be held in spring 2014.

The new Conservative group has been put together by Nick Herbert, the former police minister who resigned from the Government in September's reshuffle.

As well as Johnson and Gove, it includes Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin, who is Catholic, Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt, an evangelical Christian, former Tory ministers Lord Fowler and Nicholas Soames and Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson.

The group has been put together by Conservative Nick Herbert

In a letter to The Sunday Telegraph announcing the formation of the group, the 19 declared: "Marriage should be open to all, regardless of sexuality.

"We recognise that civil partnerships were an important step forward in giving legal recognition to same sex couples.

"But civil partnerships are not marriages, which express a particular and universally understood commitment."

Herbert, who is in a civil partnership, said changing the law was "the right the thing to do".

"It is precisely because marriage is such a uniquely important institution that we should ensure that all couples who want to enter into it, regardless of their sexuality, can do so," he added.

"Conservatives who believe in marriage should feel this most strongly."

However, Herbert insisted it would be wrong to "compel religious organisations to marry same-sex couples against their will" and called for legal "safeguards" to prevent it.

Johnson said the Government should get on and "whack through" the gay marriage legislation.

"It is perfectly obvious that the constituency is there for doing this," he told Sky News' Murnaghan programme.

"No religion is going to be under any compulsion to change their observances... whack it through. Let's knock this thing on the head."

The Mayor conceded that his own position had shifted after opposing gay marriage some years ago. But he said the world had also changed, and appealed for Tory opponents to focus on other issues.

"In a way, I think it is a shame that the subject continues to be so prevalent," he said. "Let's get it done and talk about the real Conservative things that we want to do."