The Conservative Prime Minister of Canada has conceded defeat over his plans to re-open the debate over gay marriage.

In July 2005, under the previous Liberal administration, Canada became the fourth country to allow gay and lesbian couples to get married.

During the 2006 election campaign, the Conservatives had pledged to re-open the debate about the issue, despite the fact that eight provinces had decided that excluding gay and lesbians from marriage was a human rights violation.

Having won the election, but without an overall majority, Tory Prime Minister Stephen Harper carried out his promise, but his motion in defence of ‘traditional’ marriage was defeated in the House of Commons by 175 to 123.

MPs had a free vote, and six Cabinet members voted against the government motion, while 13 Liberal members voted to end gay and lesbian marriages.

It was the sixth time since 2003 that the House of Commons had voted in favour of same-sex marriage, and the government motion was defeated by an even larger margin than the 2005 vote that finally legalised gay weddings.

Harper has now assured Canadians that he thinks the matter is closed and he will not bring it before Parliament again, even if his party gain an overall majority.

His abandonment of an election pledge has angered many religious and social conservatives, who predicted he would suffer at the next election for not fighting hard enough.

Harper did not even attend the first day of the debate on the motion, though he did vote. Opponents of gay marriage have vowed to continue the fight.

Pat O’Brien, a Liberal MP who resigned the party whip over his rejection of gay marriage, told the Globe Mail: “We saw some pretty high-profile candidates defeated in the last election because of their stand in favour of same-sex marriage. We didn’t get as many successes as we wanted in the last election, but this is far too serious an issue to give up so lightly.”