The fate that has befallen MPs Mark Oaten and Simon Hughes is familiar – over-familiar, some would say. How many times does this melodrama have to be played out before politicians understand the rules? If you’re a gay MP and you’re in the closet, the tabloids will one day come knocking on the door (won’t they, Mr Mandelson?). If you remove the door of the closet and come out voluntarily (a la Ben Bradshaw, Alan Duncan, Angela Eagle, Stephen Williams et al), there is nothing that the tabloids can do to you, except occasionally humiliate and belittle you in the gossip columns (but they do that to everybody in public life, straight or gay).
Simon Hughes was a perfect example of the old school of tabloid outings. “Everybody knew” about Simon, we were told after the event. Yet it took these people who “knew” nearly 25 years to say anything. If Mr Hughes had not denied the facts of his sexuality three times in the week prior to his outing by The Sun, then it might not have been so bad. But these outright denials gave the papers all the righteous indignation they needed: Simon was a hypocrite and a liar and therefore, fair game. This was almost a re-run of the Michael Portillo case, when the papers pursued Mr Portillo relentlessly until eventually he admitted that he had had homosexual relationships “in the past”.
It was, therefore, rather bizarre to see Mr Portillo on the This Week political show on BBC, commenting about the Simon Hughes case and managing to do it without any reference at all to his own experience.
Mark Oaten was the other style of outing: the dark secret exposed. There have been numerous MPs who have been indiscreet with prostitutes, both male and female, and even more indiscreet about covering it all up. Harvey Proctor, Clive Betts and Ron Davis were three of those whose sexual peccadilloes led to their downfall.
Traditionally, commentators have been split into two camps. At the liberal end, the line has usually been that a politician’s private life is his own and the tabloids have no business exposing it in public unless there is an over-riding public interest in doing so. This was represented by Bruce Anderson, a columnist on The Independent, who wrote: “I cannot see that Mark Oaten has done anything very wrong. Nor can I see why his sexual peccadillo should destroy his career, but it probably will. Although we need a law to restrain the red tops’ bestial behaviour, many more careers will be shattered and many more families reduced to misery before one is passed.”
To such arguments the tabloids respond that lying, cheating, behaving immorally and generally being “ambivalent” about who you really are, raise questions about your suitability for high office. It’s all big-time hypocrisy, of course. The tabloids are not motivated primarily by serving the public good. They want scandal, exposé – the more salacious the better. That’s the way to shift papers.
From their point of view, the Mark Oaten case, with its three-in-a-bed romps and “a bizarre sex act too revolting to describe”, was far superior to the Simon Hughes episode, with its rather sad admission that he didn’t want to come out because he was scared of his deeply Christian old mum.
At the moment, Simon Hughes is officially bisexual (or, as Richard Littlejohn put it from his new perch at The Daily Mail: “Simon’s not gay, he just helps them out when they’re busy”). Stories that have appeared in the Sunday scandal sheets about him (“I had a one-night stand with Simon 1 hour after we met in gay Net chatroom” as The Sunday Mirror had it, and “Simon says: I’ve not paid for sex” – as The Sun revealed) were pretty anodyne, compared to those Mr Oaten had to endure.
He, too, is, I suppose – in the confused world of sexuality – bisexual. He is married with children, but his compulsion to seek out male company for sexual jollies (not once, but many times) has brought disaster upon the straight section of his compartmentalised life. In The Daily Mail, Geoffrey Levy wrote: “To measure the catastrophe that so suddenly enveloped Mark Oaten yesterday, the place to look was not Westminster but the house he shares with his wife and two young daughters” where there are “poignant signs of a happy and loving family life speaking volumes for the stupidity of man.”
Given the present interest in the film Brokeback Mountain, it was almost inevitable that the Lib Dems would be renamed the Brokeback Party by the crueller elements of the press. But there are striking similarities between Mark Oaten’s story and the story of the two sexually confused sheep-herders in Ang Lee’s film (except, of course, there was nothing of real love between Mr Oaten and the treacherous rent boy as there was between Ennis and Jack in the movie). And then there was the survey in The Observer that showed that 15% of the population has had “same sex sexual contact” (which, given the way people lie to these pollsters, probably means it’s more like 30%).
So, now we come to the other perennial question in cases like that of Mark Oaten and those who have gone before. Why do they do it? Why do successful men with so much to lose both professionally and personally, behave so recklessly?
In the Times, Dr Thomas Stuttaford, explained: “Illicit sex with a prostitute is said to satisfy three drives: sex, aggression and a love of danger, motivating forces that are not unknown to politicians. Journeying along the corridors of power leading to Downing Street is like traversing a hotel corridor studded with tempting rooms and other diversions along its length. To reach No 10, or any other great office of State, successful politicians are likely to be testosterone-rich, goal-oriented risk-takers – why else would they have left their safe jobs? – and rather more ruthless than their contemporaries.”
He quotes psychiatrist Anthony Storr, who says that elderly people tend to become self-righteous and often forget how strong the sexual urge was in their youth. He maintains that “Those men who claim to be able to control it entirely and suppress the expression of sex, while they are still in the first half of their life, are actually undersexed.”
Derek Draper a psychotherapist and ex-Labour spin doctor, who has some experience of gay MPs being put through the tabloid wringer by his (professional) association with Nick Brown and Peter Mandelson, wrote in The Daily Mail: “Oaten would have been in a state of constant anxiety about being discovered. People under great pressure can often ignore their fears and worries – but only for a while. Eventually it overwhelms you. The odd thing, though, is that such a high-octane, high-risk existence can be perversely exciting. To be acting so recklessly can be the only thing that makes you feel really alive. It’s similar to the rush of dangerous sports.”
But Mr Draper advises other politicians: “make sure you sort out your personal demons before you seek high office. You owe it to your voters, your families and yourselves.”
A small crumb of kindness and understanding was offered to Mark Oaten by the novelist Francis King, who wrote to The Independent in response to a rather unkind article by the paper’s gay columnist, Philip Hensher.
“It is entirely possible,” wrote Mr King, “that love was the reason why Oaten married his wife, and that the same love continued to sustain the relationship until a rent-boy decided to blab to the press. When a man destroys his career and possibly his marriage through an act of crazy aberration, then surely the appropriate response, particularly from homosexuals like Hensher and myself, should be of compassionate regret, not of disdainful schaudenfreude.”
That was a small spot of comfort for Mr Oaten in a huge morass of finger-wagging and sneering. The Sun continued its leering headlines: “Lib Dems tell rent boy MP: we’re right behind you”, and other such homophobic sludge. The commentators went for both Hughes and Oaten without mercy.
Sue Carroll in The Daily Mirror opined that “Oaten’s deceit should cost him his seat”. Vanessa Feltz in The Express said: “Anyone trying to do an important job with the constant spectre of blackmail or ‘outing’ hovering over them must find their concentration wavering under the strain. Anyone capable of lying to their wives is obviously more than capable of lying to voters.” Andreas Whittam Smith in The Independent: “Mr Hughes evidently believes… that it isn’t morally wrong to lie to protect one’s privacy. What else, if he attained power, would he think justified deceit? Experience suggests the list would be long. But now we have learned just in time that Mr Hughes is a shameless liar. I profoundly hope that he will fail in his attempt to lead the Liberal Democrats.”
John Gaunt in The Sun advised readers not to buy the PR that these were good men brought down by a cruel press. “Oaten is no Oscar Wilde, he is a hypocrite and his morals make Jodie Marsh look like Mother Teresa. And remember, with him it’s not a case of Free Willy but three willies.”
Perhaps the most shocking comment, though, came from someone who claimed to “love my gay friends”. Lowri Turner says that most of her friends are gay “I work in the media, for goodness sake” and because of her intimacy with so many gay men she has concluded that we should never be allowed anywhere near high office. In The Western Mail she wrote: “Their lifestyles are too divorced from the norm… Gay men face challenges of their own, but they do not face those associated with having children which is a way most of us live. I have gay friends whose biggest headache is whether to have a black sofa or a cream one. If they have a child it is a dog. My gay friends have not sat in accident and emergency with a small child. They have not had to make the decision over whether to give them MMR. They have not struggled to get their child statemented or gone through the schools’ appeals process. Without these experiences at the sharp end of our public services, they do not know how they function. This makes them completely out of their depth in administering them…. I love my gay friends, but I don’t want them running the country.”
It seems that Britain is not yet ready to be quite so laid back about gay politicians as we’d like. Indeed, if these two episodes have shown us anything, it is that we seem to be going backwards.
“Some critics have argued that Brokeback Mountain is less daring or progressive than it might at first appear… Nonsense! The film, far more affecting than any made by the tart-tongued avant-gardists of the early 1990s New Queer Cinema movement, is a dagger in the heart of all those who think that homosexuality is a disease confined to Democratic states” – Sukhdev Sandhu, film critic, Daily Telegraph.
“Alan Hollinghurst has written something utterly damaging to the gay cause. Here is Alan’s gay world: gay men who will have sex with absolutely anyone; gay men who are hysterical, treacherous, backstabbing, cruel, duplicitous and desperate to sleep with a straight male” (Virginia Blackburn writing about the BBC’s dramatisation of The Line of Beauty in The Daily Express)
“Emmerdale used to be a favourite with me but recently it has become obsessed with gay and lesbian storylines and I find myself switching to another channel” – (Readers letter, Daily Express)
“I am perfectly willing to say I have had both homosexual and heterosexual relationships,” – Simon Hughes in The Sun, after having previously denied it three times.