The Tories are embracing gay rights

I'm sorry that Denis MacShane takes exception to the news that I will be representing the Conservative party at this year's EuroPride, to be held in Warsaw.

But then, MacShane isn't raising this issue because he's concerned to advance gay rights in eastern Europe. What he really wants to do is suggest that the Conservative party hasn't changed. There is an election on, after all.

If MacShane and others (Nick Clegg tried the same line in the second TV debate) want to attack us for the views of some members of political parties in eastern Europe, they'll find we can play the same game. Labour is allied with parties who have banned gay pride and called homosexuality a disease; the Liberal Democrats with a party that called it a mental disability. If we conduct the debate to such pitiful standards, these political links would be sufficient evidence for us to brand Labour and the Liberal Democrats extremists, holding views by association which are beyond the pale. We don't make this logical leap because it's patently absurd. Neither should our opponents.

Yes, there is a greater social conservatism in eastern Europe. So it's right for us to have dialogue and encourage tolerance. Yes, a few MPs and candidates in the UK - in all parties, by the way - are more socially conservative than others. If they step over the line, they should be dealt with. We acted immediately this week to suspend a candidate in Scotland who expressed views about gay people that have no place in the modern Conservative party. But my colleague Chris Grayling simply isn't in this camp - he voted for equality laws and civil partnerships, and apologised for his recent remarks.

None of this should be allowed to obscure the truth that the Conservative party has changed at a remarkable rate. As David Cameron told Pink News last month: "We are totally committed to the fight for gay rights and there will be absolutely no going back on equality legislation if a Conservative government is elected."

When, in his first conference speech as leader, Cameron spoke about his commitment to marriage, he explicitly said that this included unions between same sex couples - and our activists applauded. We backed civil partnerships: in fact, more members of the shadow cabinet voted for them than the cabinet. Gordon Brown failed to vote, a serial absence on key gay equality issues which has not gone unnoticed.

Cameron has apologised for the hurt and offence caused by section 28 and said that we were wrong, over two decades ago, to have introduced it. We supported the new Equality Act and the offence of incitement to gay hatred, which should now be implemented. Once again, our opponents play politics, falsely claiming that our support for a free speech safeguard amounted to a wrecking amendment. The Ministry of Justice's official guidance says exactly the opposite - that the amendment has no effect in weakening the offence.

Until I was selected five years ago, no-one could conceive of being openly gay and elected as a Conservative MP, let alone in a true blue area. Today we have approaching 20 openly gay candidates across the country, selected not by the party's high command but by grassroots activists, many in winnable seats. In fact, if we win the election we will have more openly gay MPs than Labour.

Whatever the result of the election next Thursday, the Commons will look very different. It will be younger, more representative and more socially liberal. It will naturally want to entrench and advance equality for gay people which, to their credit, the Labour government can claim as one of their achievements.

Whoever forms the next government will still have work to do, and we've set out three specific proposals for change. We will remove historic convictions for consensual gay sex, which would now be legal, from people's criminal record checks. We will recognise civil partnerships, along with marriage, in the tax system. And we will take action against homophobic bullying in schools.

There's an agenda beyond administrative action or legislation, too. We have pressed the FA to tackle homophobia on the football terraces: their lack of effort so far has been lamentable. There are countries which are oppressing and abusing gay people, and Britain needs to take a stand.

The remarkable changes which we've seen in social attitudes will continue, and I suspect our laws will follow. Just before it was dissolved, parliament voted to allow churches to conduct civil partnerships if they want to. Cameron has said that we would look at the case for changing the law to allow civil partnerships to be called marriage.

Gay people aren't the property of any political party. They want to decide on the big issues like any other elector. And we want gay people to be able to vote Conservative because of our vision for the country and for change, safe in the knowledge that equality is here to stay.

Earlier this year I went to Washington DC to speak about how our modern conservatism has embraced gay equality. The reaction I received was often moving. One young Republican wrote that I had encouraged him to believe he could succeed in politics when he thought he would never be able to tell his parents that he was gay.

So I don't think that going to Warsaw will be tokenistic: I think it will matter. I look forward to a different debate after 6 May, when British politicians can be less divisive and more honest about how far we have all come, work together to advance equality, and help others make the same journey. That's why I invite people of all political parties and none - including Denis MacShane - to join me at EuroPride in July.

Christopher N Howarth