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13 December 1999

Why Tories won’t swallow gay sex

William Hague's stand on Clause 28 reflects the homophobia in his party. ByQuentin Letts

By Quentin Letts

My speech to a provincial Conservative Party association recently went all right until I made a schoolboy error. Having opened with some mild jokes about Cherie Blair’s baby, I had offered a few opinions about the surprisingly rude health of the parliamentary Tory party. So far so good. But then I ventured to suggest that one area in which the party could improve its standing with the electorate, particularly the young, was gay issues. Perhaps, I said, it was time for Tories to relax a bit about homosexuality. Loosen up.

You could almost hear the shudder that went around the room. There was a tinkling as toothy smiles fell from the diners’ faces. Men shifted uneasily in their seats.

It was not as though the dinner guests were particularly ancient. On other issues they held lively, catholic opinions. There were only a couple of real blue-rinses; the rest of the audience was youngish, hard working, amiable, Middle England.

Amiable, that is, to all save gays. “You lost us on the homo thing,” said a well-dressed City woman afterwards. “There are some things we simply will not swallow.” I might have put it differently, but she was undoubtedly right about the mindset of Tory activists.

Why does the Conservative Party still get its collective knickers in such a twist about homosexuality? It happened again recently when Shaun Woodward, Tory MP for Witney, was sacked from William Hague’s team. Woodward’s miscalculation was to support proposals to change Clause 28 of the Local Government Act (the one that outlaws the promotion of homosexuality by schoolteachers and local authorities).

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The brusque manner of his dismissal by the opposition chief whip, James Arbuthnot, suggested that this was no ordinary policy disagreement among Westminster colleagues. There was something visceral and shocking about Woodward’s political demise. It was like seeing a goat step on a landmine.

The history of homosexuality in the Conservative Party is made foggy by the (understandable) secrecy that Tory gays have adopted in the past. When I started watching parliament at the end of the 1980s there were several government backbenchers, including Cheltenham’s Charles Irving and Chester’s Peter Morrison, who were splendid old queens. Morrison even became Margaret Thatcher’s PPS, though not an especially good one. He was such a sweet pea that he believed what people told him when he asked how they would vote in the leadership election.

There are several members of today’s parliamentary Tory party who are, ahem, confirmed bachelors. They include prominent and veteran Commons backbenchers, confidants of William Hague, senior life peers. But there is still no openly gay Tory MP. They, too, know that the party faithful will not swallow it.

Shaun Woodward made a celebrated Commons speech earlier this year in support of a standardised age of consent. When another Tory spoke for gay equality in that debate – Epping Forest’s Eleanor Laing, a Tory whip – her speech was memorably interrupted by Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield). “Am I not correct in saying,” said Winterton, “that a homosexual act is unnatural and that if the Lord Almighty had meant men to commit sodomy with other men their bodies would have been built differently?”

Winterton’s analysis of the gay debate is much prized by right-wing hardliners. Only last week it was recited to me, word for word, by a Tory MP. The parliamentary speeches by Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffs) and Lord Selsdon (who spoke of gay sex as “carnalis copula contranaturam . . . the abominable act of buggery”) are also cherished in certain quarters.

Further evidence of Tory horror at gay matters came recently when Lord Tebbit withdrew his support for Michael Portillo after the latter’s disclosures about his homosexual past.

One suspicion around the Commons was that Woodward was zapped so ruthlessly (he was sacked by electronic pager) because he supported Kenneth Clarke’s bid for the party leadership.

Woodward himself recalls that shortly before he made that speech he entered the Commons tea-room. His stance on the debate had been well flagged. “On the table next to me,” he says, “there was a group of Conservative MPs. When they saw me they started talking very loudly about how sorry they were that original high estimates about the number of gay British men who would die from Aids had not proved accurate.”

The Clause 28 debate suggests tensions within Hague’s Conservative Party. The shadow cabinet decision to stay loyal to the policy is attributed to the trio of John Redwood, Ann Widdecombe and Iain Duncan Smith. There may also have been a canny desire to court the pro-Clause 28 Daily Mail.

Sources close to Hague state that he is utterly comfortable in the company of gays and that Clause 28 is really about the misuse of public money, not gay-bashing. It is pointed out that Hague recently sent a message of support to a Gay Pride meeting and that he is unfazed about the age of consent. But would he really have wished this to have become so prominent an issue right now?

He is astute enough to realise that while there is an intellectual argument to be made for separating Clause 28 from the rest of the gay debate, and while Middle England parents have a real problem with gay proselytising, the issue will be portrayed by much of the media as anti-gay. The perception of the noisy gay lobby will be that the Tories are hostile. The rebranding of the Tories as the listening party has received another kick in the groin.