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Laurie Penny: Schoolyard slurs about the coalition might be troubling, but they are nothing new

Gay jokes and Carry-On commentating

Before the left gets too precious about David Davis's reported comments on the '"Brokeback Coalition", we should give our sluggish short-term memories something of a workout. Erudite and edifying though schoolyard slurs of this kind may be, they are neither new nor exclusive to the right.

Remember Harriet Harman's cheeky suggestion, in her first speech as the acting leader of the opposition, that “while the happy couple are enjoying the thrill of the Rose Garden, the in-laws are saying that they are just not right for each other”? Remember all those headlines about "a very civil partnership" and "a man-date to govern"? Playground gay jokes have been employed across the political spectrum to cast aspersions on the new government from day one.

It’s a troubling trend, and not just because of the obvious problems with equating male homosexuality, even in jest, with something the press and politicians find unnatural, suspicious and uncomfortable. The conceit is dazzling in its banality, substituting political analysis for sniggering dick-jokes: it’s Carry-On commentating, and it manages to belittle all parties involved while failing to enlighten us one iota about the reasons for the fractures already emerging in the new government.

The discomfort underlying all the "Eton fag" and "Brokeback partnership" catcalls is multifarious, but it’s hard not to get the impression that a coalition government is somehow not daddy enough for us; that political partnerships and electoral reform are somehow not manly enough for the tough, thrusting, winner-takes-all tradition of British politics. As any 13-year-old boy can tell you, anything with the slightest hint of hetero-abnormality is gay, and gay is, like, completely rubbish. Obviously.

There is substantial historical precedent for homosexual inference as a form of satire: from Tacitus to the Earl of Rochester, the suggestion has implied decadence, depravity and dodgy politics. In 1791, at the height of the French Revolution, an anonymous French writer circulated the scandalous Memoirs of Antonina: Displaying the Private Intrigues and Uncommon Passions . . . of Great Persons, a burlesque intended to mock the court of Louis XVI by implying that Marie Antoinette was a voracious lesbian, or "tribade" in the language of the day.

Antonina was genuinely subversive in a way that contemporary "Brokeback Coalition" jokes are not because, at the time, popular derision of the monarchy was a serious and dangerous undertaking. Nonetheless, it has always been easier to chuckle about gay people than actually engage with the shortfalls of any particular government.

There is much to criticise about this coalition, not least that ultimately it’s the vulnerable, the difficult and the poor whom our new leaders are busy screwing -- not each other. In this context, knob jokes are both offensive and unhelpful -- though the particular notion of a "Brokeback Coalition" is more apt than David Davis or John Redwood might realise.

The film Brokeback Mountain is not, as has been intimated, the simple tale of a cosy gay relationship, but the story of a love affair between two men from deeply conservative backgrounds, plagued by insecurity and doubt and frightened of retribution from their communities. The movie ends in violence, disappointment and betrayal.

Many members of the press and political class seem to be fostering a hope that this government will end the same way -- but for those of us who happen to prefer gay sex to slashing the welfare state, the prospect of another four years of schoolyard homophobia is a weary one.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.