The Daily Mail has published a leader article today criticising the deputy prime minister’s intention to whip the party’s MPs to vote for legislation removing the ban on gay marriages in England and Wales.

The newspaper, which along with the Daily Telegraph has come out against equal marriage rights for gay couples, accused Mr Clegg of “imperious illiberalism” after it was confirmed that coalition partners in the Conservative party would be allowed a free vote but Liberal Democrats would not and would be required to vote with party policy.

Speaking to BBC’s Andrew Marr this weekend, Mr Clegg said: ”In the same way the civil partnerships legislation which was introduced under Labour was a whipped vote, I personally don’t think this is something which should be subject to a great free for all because we are not asking people to make a decision of conscience.”

Echoing the warning he issued to Tories against backing down on equal marriage, he added: “If this was an issue that somehow the Government was proposing something that would somehow be an imposition on religion or the churches, then of course that would be a matter of conscience. We are not.”

The Daily Mail leader article today reads: “In an imperious display of illiberalism, Nick Clegg is denying his MPs a free vote on the hugely complex moral question of gay marriage.

“Instead, he orders them to support the controversial Bill, arguing bizarrely that since it will apply only to civil weddings, it is ‘not a matter of conscience’.

“Leave aside that if this measure passes, churches may have to conduct such services because of human rights law. As both sides of the debate agree, civil gay marriage would represent a hugely significant step to overturning the teachings of millennia by proclaiming the exact moral equivalence of heterosexual and homosexual pairings.

“The Mail supports civil partnerships. But how can marriage be anything other than a matter for MPs’ consciences?”

The Times, the Guardian, the Independent and the London Evening Standard have expressed support for the move.

Nick Clegg expressed support for civil marriage equality in February 2010, writing on PinkNews.co.uk: ” I support gay marriage. Love is the same, straight or gay, so the civil institution should be the same, too. All couples should be able to make that commitment to one another.”

The Liberal Democrats adopted marriage equality as an official policy at their party conference in the autumn of 2010.

Of the MPs declaring their intentions at this stage, the Coalition for Equal Marriage records 195 members of Parliament having indicated they will vote for civil marriage equality for gay and straight couples with 53 likely to vote against.

On the day that the party’s free vote was announced, the Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May recorded a video for the Out4Marriage campaign in which she said: “ I believe in marriage. I believe marriage is a really important institution, it’s one of the most important institutions we have. Marriage binds us together, it brings stability, I think marriage makes us stronger. But I believe also in commitment and in fidelity in marriage, I think these are good things and we should enable them to flourish.

“That’s why I believe if two people care for each other, if they love each other, if they want to commit to each other and spend the rest of their lives together then they should be able to get married, and marriage should be for everyone, and that’s why I’m coming Out4Marriage.”

A Home Office consultation on how to introduce marriage equality is under way, closing on 14 June.