In the Left corner we have Michael Portillo, who was once a homosexual but now assures us that he has outgrown it. In the Right corner is Ann Widdecombe, a woman who could make one believe that the alien invasion has truly begun. And in the centre we have William Hague, the only person alive who was born middle aged.
This is the modern Conservative Party, lost in the realms of the surreal and bizarre and desperately trying to convince the electorate that it isn’t just a bunch of losers, has-beens, borderline psychos and bloodthirsty old ladies.
First attempt at salvaging the wreck came at the Party conference in October. There, Michael Portillo made a speech declaring that there was a place for us all in the new, caring, inclusive Tory party. “We are a party for the people, not against the people,” he said. “We are for all Britons: black Britons, British Asians, white Britons. Britain is a country of rich diversity… We are for people whatever their sexual orientation. The Tory party isn’t merely a party of tolerance: it’s a party willing to accord every one of its citizens respect.”
This was greeted with stony silence by the gathered multitude of blue-rinsed tricoteuses who wanted blood and retribution, not lily-livered kindness. Indeed, as The Independent commented the following day: “The Conservative Party is, as those who know it and well attest, a party that can almost be described as ‘institutionally homophobic’. Anyone who witnessed the reception given at The Independent’s fringe meeting to our columnist and former Tory MP Michael Brown, who is open about his homosexuality, will be in no doubt about the ugly prejudices all too readily displayed by some Tory activists. Too few of them would agree with Mr Portillo’s view: ‘The Conservative Party looks for things that mark people out as individual and exceptional. We are for people whatever their sexual orientation.’”
Questioned next day about Mr Portillo’s call for social tolerance, Ann Widdecombe affected not to know what the words meant. “What I believe is that the state should have a preferred model, that it should promote the traditional family,” she said, with that characteristic purse of the lips.
So, what is “official” Tory party policy towards gay people? Are we in or are we out? Well, according to Steve Norris, the Party’s vice-chairman, we should be in. In fact, we should be leading from the front. In an interview with YouGov.com, which describes itself as an “e-democracy site”, Mr Norris said: “I see no reason why in the future we might not have a prime minister who was from an ethnic minority, or for that matter gay… As the party that was the first to bring you a woman prime minister… I have no doubt that the first gay prime minister will probably be a Tory.”
Sorry Steve, but I think we have already had our first gay prime minister and probably our second one, too. Perhaps what he meant is the first “out” gay prime minister. In which case, is he trying to tell us something about somebody?
Anyway, such talk didn’t please Norman Tebbit, the Tory party’s bigot-in-chief of yesteryear. He wrote, with his usual restraint, in The Sunday Telegraph: “If sodomites have a human right to marry would it not be inevitable for paedophiles to establish their right to child sex and inevitably would follow those with a taste for bestiality?”
Mr Norris retorted that: “Mr Tebbit thinks that every homosexual is a paedophile, is a closet paedophile. He is entitled to his view, but it’s not one that I or, I believe, any decent person shares.” Francis Maude, the shadow Foreign Secretary, whose brother died from Aids, is also a “tolerater”. He said: “Tolerance is not an optional addition to this party’s values: it is an absolutely vital part of it which sustains us.” The Defence spokesman Iain Duncan Smith, on the other hand, wants gays out of the army as soon as possible.
But these people are just the monkeys. It’s the organ grinder’s opinion we want. Surely the leader of the party can give us a definitive answer as to whether the Tory party is pro-gay or anti-gay?
We turn to a speech given by the great leader in Cardiff to a convention of newspaper editors. According to The Independent he “endorsed Michael Portillo’s call to show greater tolerance towards homosexuals”, and promised that the party’s new inclusive approach would not be a “one-week wonder”.
“I do not accept the false distinction that is sometimes made between respecting the lifestyle decisions of individuals and championing mainstream values,” Mr Hague explained. “Conservatives should do both, for we are neither libertarians nor authoritarians… I see no contradiction, nor do most people, in saying that we respect people of different sexual orientation, but we don’t want Section 28 repealed.”
So is that yes or no – because I certainly see a contradiction in the idea that we’re welcome but only as second-class citizens.
Having got no further with that, we then proceed to the Tory’s “Policy Forum on Britain’s Faith Communities” held in a church in Westminster. There, Mr Hague was addressing just about all the country’s religious leaders: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and just about every other deluded sect and cult you can think of. According to The Times, the speech he made to these people was “an attempt to balance the call made by Michael Portillo, the Shadow Chancellor, at the party conference for tolerance to all sections of the community whatever their sexual orientation.”
Mr Hague said: “On the subject of the family, I would like to thank those religious leaders who are fighting to retain Section 28. I am delighted that representatives of the Christian Institute and Iqbal Sacranie of the Muslim Council of Great Britain are here with us today. Britain’s Muslims are standing tall in this campaign and millions of parents will be grateful for that.”
Ann Widdecombe was also at the “policy forum”, moving among her natural constituency of intolerant, narrow-minded fundamentalists. Would she consider converting to Islam, someone asked. She expressed her admiration for the “uncompromising” nature of Islam, bemoaning the fact that “They are like the Christian churches used to be.” And on the subject of homosexuality she said: “Tolerating other lifestyles doesn’t mean affording them equal validity.”
Indeed, The Independent reported that the whole forum had “a strong anti-homosexual odour.”
Dawvd Noibi, an Islamic consultant with the Muslim education charity IQRA Trusts, opined that the time for pussy-footing by leaders about homosexuality was clearly over. “If we don’t speak out now we’ll all be responsible before God,” he warned. There was a shout of ‘hear, hear’ and applause when Mr Noibi added that there was ‘no excuse’ for gay couples having children. Then a Ms Maqsood said there was compassion for gays, but many Muslims would like to see money invested in a ‘cure’ for the ‘abnormality’. Perhaps all that was needed was a simple injection, she said.
This rather pathetic crawling to the hard-line religious lobby horrified Matthew Parris. In The Times he chided Mr Hague for his unconvincing, new-found religiosity: “Voters in this deeply agnostic country know in their bones if not always in their heads that the world of faith comes not accompanied by love, devotion and service alone, but also with many hatreds, much censoriousness, and an insistent desire to punish. When we hear from an evangelical ‘support marriage’ we hear not only support for some, but disapproval for others.”
So, what do all these mixed messages mean? What is Mr Hague’s motivation in saying that there is a place for homosexuals in his new vision for Britain and then throwing in his lot with our bitterest and most implacable enemies?
Perhaps Alice Miles in The Times has the answer, and it is, in her words “breathtakingly cynical”.
“I asked a member of the Shadow Cabinet what was the strategy behind ‘governing for all’. It was, he explained, borrowed from this year’s Republican convention, where George W. Bush did all that public reaching out to black people. ‘It wasn’t because he thought they would vote for him,’ he said, ‘but in order to reassure floating voters who might vote Republican’ but were embarrassed by the right-wing image. The Tory leadership doesn’t expect the black and Asian communities, or the poor to vote for them. ‘Of course not, but if the people we do want to vote for us think we are uncaring, we must have inner-city policies to show that we’re not.”
So there you have it. Mr Hague is not courting the gay vote; he is courting the votes of decent people who are repelled by the Tory’s nastiness and narrow-mindedness. If he can really convince that mass of liberal, tolerant people out there that he is not really an irredeemable gay-basher, then they just might come back to the fold.
Now we see it. Mr Hague is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Ann Widdecombe is the Rottweiler guarding and reassuring the existing flock, while Michael Portillo is trying to tempt a few unsuspecting sheep from another fold with his touchy-feely, you-can-trust-me approach.
There’s only one answer. Run a mile.