Nick Clegg has been embarrassingly forced to withdraw comments in which he branded opponents of gay marriage “bigots”.
The Deputy Prime Minister had been expected to use the jibe at a star-studded reception this evening.
Extracts released to the media in advance stated that “continued trouble in the economy gives the bigots a stick to beat us with, as they demand we ’postpone’ the equalities agenda”.
However, an hour later a corrected version was issued replacing “bigots” with “some people”.
Aides to the Liberal Democrat leader tried to quell an angry backlash by insisting an early draft of the address had been sent out by mistake.
And Mr Clegg told guests at the event in central London – held to celebrate a consultation on the policy – that he would not use such “insulting” language.
“I am a little bit surprised to see cameras assembled outside the gates, for the slightly obscure surprising reason that they expect me to use a word about opponents of gay marriage that I had no intention of using, would never use,” he said.
“It is not the kind of word that I would use... While I stridently disagree with those who would block moves towards equal marriage, I never seek to engage in debate in insulting terms.”
The coalition’s pledge to introduce same-sex civil marriage by 2015 has been criticised by religious groups and provoked deep unease in Conservative ranks - with some ministers suggesting they may not support it in Parliament.
David Cameron has signalled that MPs will be given a free vote, but stressed his personal commitment to the change.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey said the mooted remarks by Mr Clegg were “very offensive”.
“If he persists in taking that view I and others would be very offended,” he told the BBC.
“To be called a bigot is a very offensive statement and I would ask him to recall it... because there are issues here that demand very serious debate.”
Tory backbencher Peter Bone said Mr Clegg had insulted “millions of people with deep convictions of religion and conscience”.
He insisted the Lib Dem leader had to “apologise profusely” or resign.
“I don’t see how that could have got published without it being the view of the Deputy Prime Minister,” he said. “He has got to rapidly get out there on the airwaves apologising.
“It is clear what he thinks. There is no way that the Deputy Prime Minister of our country can be associated with that language.”
But gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who was at the reception, said: “It is pretty clear that some people oppose marriage rights for gay people because of deep-seated homophobic bigotry.
“Nick Clegg should not be afraid to say so.”
Celebrities including Stephen Fry, Simon Callow, and Derren Brown were among guests served Ben and Jerry’s ’Appley Ever After’ ice cream, specially renamed by the company in support of the policy.
Mr Clegg said there had been 228,000 responses to the consultation since it was launched in June, and the government would set out its next move by the end of the year.
He also announced that Lib Dem Jo Swinson had been appointed equalities minister, alongside her duties as a business minister.