Thatcher the gay icon

'There are many gay Tory men who would like to sleep with David Cameron but it is Lady Thatcher whose portrait hangs over their bed!'

Central London was awash with celebration the other Sunday afternoon. On Horse Guards Parade Falklands veterans marked the Silver Jubilee of Mrs Thatcher's glorious victory and in the Ritz Hotel the Conservative Leader of Westminster City Council sealed his civil partnership with his fellow Councillor and Chief Whip.

In a vision in fuchsia pink Mrs Thatcher was the only dignitary to receive an ovation as she arrived on the reviewing dais and as she left the Victoria Memorial later in the afternoon (on the arm of Tony Blair) she was mobbed by ex-soldiers and the crowd in a slightly sedater version of Tom Cruise working a Leicester Square Premier.

At the Ritz over the jam and scones, Tory Grandees, ex-lord mayors, young, thrusting Westminster City Councillors and the odd Rabbi joined Sir Simon Milton and his partner Councillor Robert Davis' family and friends to wish them well and to prove how the Conservative Party has embraced the Gay equality agenda. In Sir Simon's speech he revealed that they had been a couple for 19 years having met at the height of the Thatcher Government.

In my experience many of the gay Politicians in the Tory party (a not inconsiderable number) joined the Conservative party and became active during the Thatcher years. Whilst her government acquired an unfortunate reputation for not being gay friendly, the notorious and unnecessary Section 28 (under which no one was ever prosecuted) did serious damage to the equality agenda.

However, whilst the underlying ethos of Thatcherism (based on individual liberty) might well be pro-gay it was Mrs T's personality which attracted so many homosexual men to the party. In a profession dominated by men with dandruff and hair coming out of their noses or women who appear to have been dragged through a hedge backwards (a la Shirley Williams), the pure elegance, feminine perfection, perfect dress sense, and sheer determination to change society drew many gay men to the Iron Lady.

Whilst her government might have had an anti-gay aura there was simply nothing in her personal attitude to demonstrate any prejudice, she appointed gay ministers including the tragic Earl of Avon (son of ex-Prime Minister Anthony Eden) who was one of the earliest victims of Aids.

On the subject of Aids it was her government with Norman Fowler as Health Secretary which faced the issue head on and refused to take a "moral" tone on public information and prevention work.

Since Lady Thatcher was stabbed in the back by a cabal of straight men in 1990 she has gone through her "Norma Desmond" phase ("it was Politics that got small" and has emerged as a worthy successor to the late Queen Mother as the Nation's favourite relic of a bygone era. In that pantheon of gay icons, abused by straight men, that includes Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, Margaret Thatcher has it all, beauty and brains.

There are many gay Tory men who would like to sleep with David Cameron but it is Lady Thatcher whose portrait hangs over their bed!

Brian Coleman was first elected to the London Assembly in June 2000. Widely outspoken he is best known for his groundbreaking policy of removing traffic calming measures
Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation