The Laws and coming out

It is impossible to detach consideration of David Laws’s misdeeds from the cultural acceptance of ho

Homosexuality is not an exoneration, of course not, no more than are the guy's political talents. No one is saying that clever people, or gay people, or even clever gay people, should not be made to abide by rules governing parliamentary expenses.

Neither David Laws's guilt in claiming housing expenses to which he was not entitled (because his landlord was his lover), nor his acceptance of that guilt, are in question. What remains to be determined is the fitting level of punishment.

To answer this question, I don't see how it's possible to ignore Laws's sexuality, because (in my mind, anyway) the punishment for venality should be of an order of magnitude stronger than that for an attempt to maintain privacy.

Jacqui Smith rented a room from her sister and designated it her "main home". That wasn't out of a desire to prevent her sororal habitation habit from being known: it was from a desire to maximise her cash take. For that, she was censured by, but not suspended from, the Commons. Her eventual expulsion from the House by her electorate was one of the most powerful arguments against AV, by the way: giving first-weight preferences to the last-placed candidates in her constituency could well have returned her to the green benches. (Update: Jacqui Smith has posted a comment below to challenge my reading of events).

So, to repeat, because it matters: I'm not arguing that Laws should go unpunished, or that he didn't act wrongly and against the rules. I'm not even pointing out the strangeness of the "No lover as landlord" rule (does a single act of intercourse with one's landlord break the rule? Or must intercourse be carried out repeatedly over time?).

I'm asking that the most probable reason for his actions be taken into account in order to deliver a just punishment. And I can't – of course I can't – separate Laws's sexuality from my thinking about this.

The best counterargument I've read came from Tom Harris, that good man and Labour MP for Glasgow South, who said to me on Twitter last night that I was "Wrong [to suggest that Laws's homosexuality is part-explanation for his behaviour]. He could easily have afforded not to claim rent at all, thus staying within rules and not outing himself." Means testing for MP expenses? Well, why not? I'm sure with hindsight Laws would have sympathy with this.

It's tempting to reply to Harris, and those who agree with him, thus: you simply have no idea what it's like to live as a gay person.

For all the movement towards legal equality of esteem, we do not inhabit a world where we are treated the same as people who are not gay.

In corporate life, at the start of my career a couple of decades ago, I sometimes noted my own lack of "clubbability" (my inability to socialise with ease, not the desirability of treating me like a baby seal in the 1980s), and asked myself if it was holding me back.

Do you see what I mean? I'm not accusing other people of treating me differently; I'm asking if something unresolved within our cultural etiquette of social interaction (because the liberated gay person is a relatively modern fact) prevented me from being as straightforward with colleagues as I would have been, were I a different person.

You will find this impossible to understand, I guess, but certainly in my twenties I found it almost excruciating to take part in any workplace conversation that moved on to the topic of families, children, schools, holidays, weekends – that is, almost anything.

There seemed no way of participating in such conversations without making a political point, which was the last thing I wanted to do ("Are you seeing anyone?" "Yes . . . [awkward silence] . . . I'm gay! Since you didn't ask").

Now, I'm about as openly gay as it's possible to be, and consider myself liberated: I don't put up with rubbish from anyone. But were I even to a mild degree more diffident, I think my professional (and private) life would be markedly less successful: I would prioritise privacy (for fear of censure) over the joy that comes from living life openly.

For the third time, and in conclusion, let me underline that I'm not claiming that any of this implies that David Laws should not be punished for his expense claim faults. He should be humbled in front of the House and repay every penny that should not have been taken. After that, though, I'd rather let the voters of Yeovil decide whether or not he should be removed from the Chamber.

Whatever happened to that rather excellent Tory initiative on voter recall?

Graeme Archer is a regular contributor to ConservativeHome hoping to remain on the Tory party official candidates' list. In real life he is a statistician. On Twitter he's @graemearcher.

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Peter Hitchens on Twitter seemed barely human – then he came round for tea

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me.

But what about Peter Hitchens?” everyone is asking after my last encounter with him. He came round to the Hovel, you see, the day before the column, in which I said all sorts of nasty things about him, appeared. The reason why he came round is complicated and boring, but suffice it to say that books were exchanged, in a spirit of mutual diplomatic tension.

I offered him a choice of red wine, whisky, or tea. It was five o’clock. (He was punctual, which unsurprised me. He chose tea; he is not a fan of intoxication. Aha! I thought, he’ll love this: as a foe of modernity in many of its aspects, such as duvets and central heating, he will appreciate the fact that I do not use tea bags. Loose Assam leaves, put into a scalded teapot. “Conservative in everything except politics” was a formulation – originally, I think, applied to George Orwell – that Peter’s late brother was fond of, and I thought my old-fashionedness would soothe him.

Not exactly: he noticed I was pouring semi-skimmed milk into the mug. Of course you put the milk in last when you are using tea bags. When pouring from a pot, you put the milk in first. Milk poured in afterwards does not emulsify satisfactorily. If you are one of those people who say “but how do you know if you’ve put in the right amount of milk?” then I exhort you to start trusting your pouring arm.

Semi-skimmed milk, I learned quickly, is a no-no in the world of P Hitchens.

“But Orwell himself,” I replied urbanely, “said that milk that was too creamy made the tea taste unpleasant. Not, of course, that I believe everything Orwell said, but on tea-making he is sound.”

Mr Hitchens demurred, saying that Orwell was referring to the equivalent of what we know today as Gold Top. This allowed me to go off on a little rant, a positive, life-enhancing rant, about how good Gold Top is, how my children love it, etc. We moved into the living room. I noticed my shoes were more old-fashioned than his. Come to think of it, they may have been older than him. They’re almost certainly older than me.

There was a mood of civility in the air. Slightly strained, perhaps, like his tea, but unmistakably present. Part of the reason was that I had mentioned our forthcoming meeting on a social medium, and two of my friends, one a well-known novelist, the other a well-known columnist, both women, both left wing, had asked me, extremely sincerely, to pass on their best wishes. They knew him of old, had worked with him, were fond of him. These are two women whose opinions I take very seriously indeed. The Peter Hitchens I knew, of column and Question Time panel, was clearly not the whole picture. If these women say he’s Basically All Right, or All Right enough to ask me to pass on their best wishes, then that is pretty much good enough for me.

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me. I was becoming increasingly conscious that, the next day, in newsagents throughout the land, the latest edition of this magazine would appear, and in it, on page 82, would be a column by me, which contained several jokes at the expense of P Hitchens, Esq. And I knew that this column would not escape his vigilance. I massaged the bridge of my nose and launched into a pre-emptive apology. “I think I had better tell you...”

He seemed to take it fairly well, though I’d not given him the full nature of my assault. When we were tossing insults back and forth on Twitter, he seemed barely human; now, in my living room, he all too clearly was. I suppose this is how we all see our enemies on Twitter: as botched versions of the Turing Test, spouting opinions that are quite clearly wrong in spite of all our well-reasoned arguments. The only variable is how quickly the arguments de-evolve into base invective. I have my own theory about this. It involves Lacan, so I’ll spare you.

A couple of days later I received an email from him, courteously asking after me and my latest troubles, the ones I can’t write about due to their immensity. It also contained the precise quote from Orwell regarding milk in tea. (“Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.” You have to love that “ninthly”.) “Tempus mutatur,” I replied... but noted, too, that there was no mention of That Column. I was rather impressed. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear