With his lips and quiff, Portillo is rated by gay men as the most shaggable MP. But he doesn't do it for me

If I believed that God's hand guides the universe, as Cardinal Winning did, I might see his death as divine retribution for his hateful campaign against "perverted" homosexuals. But since I am not religious, I guess the cardinal's cardiac arrest was simply the result of bad genes and an unhealthy Christian lifestyle. Baroness Young - be warned. You are tempting fate, my dear. Indeed, Winning's demise is the latest in a series of misfortunes to befall prominent supporters of Section 28 in Scotland.

First, the chief funder of the "Keep the Clause" campaign, the Stagecoach boss Brian Souter, suffered catastrophic financial losses. Then came the death of the queer-baiting cleric Monsignor Tom Connelly, and the sudden departure of the editor of the homophobic Daily Record, Martin Clarke. Most recently, after campaigning in defence of Section 28, the Conservatives were thrashed in the general election. If God does exist, He's obviously batting for my side.

There is much speculation that Michael Portillo may become the first "out" gay Tory leader and prime minister. But queer Tories in Downing Street are nothing new. The earliest was William Pitt the Younger. Satirists jibed that Pitt's influence over George III was comparable to that of the Duke of Buckingham over James I. They openly lampooned his relationship with young Tom Steele and the holidays they took together in Brighton (it was, even then, a favourite fag haven). Portillo prefers to holiday in Morocco - another perennial queer destination. He told Tatler that his favourite men are "definitely David Beckham. Then Robbie Williams and Hugh Grant."

Many gay men rate Portillo as the "most shaggable" MP, citing his luscious full lips and cute silky quiff. But he doesn't do anything for me. But hey, what about his voting record? He backed Section 28 and, as defence secretary, sanctioned the witch-hunting of homosexuals in the armed forces. Right up until the last vote, he opposed an equal age of consent. I suspect that Portillo appeals to masochistic queens who prefer their men to look hard and cruel. To his credit, late last year Portillo switched to support equality at 16. I wrote to thank him, but never received a reply. Perhaps I'm just bitter at being ignored.

Otherwise, the gay A-list of fanciable MPs is tiny: Tony Blair (big hands, great smile), William Hague (snazzy buzz-cut), Ben Bradshaw (cheekbones to die for), Gordon Brown (cuddly and puppy-eyed) and Stephen Twigg (flawless skin, sweet little dimples).

Congratulations to the Imperial War Museum for screening the British premiere of the film Paragraph 175, featuring the testimonies of the last few living gay Holocaust survivors. Speaking in the post-film debate, I made the point that all the major histories of the Holocaust neglect the Nazi war against homosexuals. The books of Sir Martin Gilbert are typical. They never fully reflect the scale and savagery of the campaign to exterminate gay people. Gilbert's most recent book, Never Again: a history of the Holocaust, is promoted by his publishers as a "comprehensive account of the Holocaust". But the only mention of the Nazi anti-gay witch-hunts is one 13-word sentence: "German homosexuals were singled out for brutality and execution in the concentration camps."

If Gilbert had similarly dismissed the victimisation of Jews, he would be condemned as a revisionist historian. But when he neglects the Nazi persecution of homosexuals, it passes unchallenged. Why? Surely diminution and omission are also forms of historical revisionism because they result in selective, partial and therefore incomplete versions of the Holocaust. Is it too much to ask that all the victims of Nazism - both Jews and non-Jews - receive full acknowledgement in books that claim to be comprehensive Holocaust histories?

Another weasel-worded letter arrives from the Foreign Office. Four months after I was beaten unconscious by President Robert Mugabe's bodyguards in Brussels, there has been no British protest to Zimbabwe. Should Mugabe be allowed to export his thuggery to the streets of Europe without rebuke? According to the Foreign Office: "It is standard practice for the protection team of a head of state to deal with any attempt to approach them." Yes, but does "deal with" include battering unconscious a peaceful protester?

While the Foreign Office talks about upholding the international rule of law and creating an international court to try crimes against humanity, Britain continues to ignore the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture. We've signed it and it requires the signatory states to arrest any person who commits an act of torture anywhere in the world. When Mugabe came to London in 1999, I urged the then foreign secretary, Robin Cook, to arrest him on charges of torturing the Zimbabwean journalists Ray Choto and Mark Chavunduka. Cook's reply was that President Mugabe has immunity as a head of state. Nonsense. Under the UN convention, no one is immune. What is the point of having international human rights laws if world leaders can flout them with impunity? I wonder whether Mugabe will dare go to October's Commonwealth Conference in Brisbane? I'll be there and will again attempt to bring him to justice. I may not succeed, but hopefully my presence will make him nervous and spoil his trip.

Peter Tatchell is Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, which campaigns for human rights the UK and worldwide: www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org His personal biography can be viewed here: www.petertatchell.net/biography.htm

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The slow death of Tory England

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide