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Sunday, September 05, 2010

Joan Smith: Hague's problem is sense, not sexuality

Joan Smith: Hague's problem is sense, not sexuality

Rumours about the Foreign Secretary's love life have circulated for years, but it is using Ffion to prop up his story that is shocking

First, a little history: in 1999, a Conservative MP called Shaun Woodward was one of the party's frontbench spokesmen. When his leader, William Hague, committed the Tories to opposing the abolition of Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act – a notorious piece of legislation which outlawed the "promotion of homosexuality" – Woodward refused to toe the line. Hague sacked him and Woodward defected to Labour, where he enjoyed a meteoric rise and later became a cabinet minister.

Hague was unrepentant and a few weeks later he chose the Daily Mail, the traditional defender of "family values", to underline his support for Section 28. "It prevents, mainly through deterrence, public authorities from engaging in the sort of inappropriate activity that resulted in such public disquiet in the 1980s," he wrote early in 2000. When the Labour government finally got round to repealing Section 28 in 2003, Hague (no longer Tory leader) voted to keep it.

While there are grounds for thinking that Hague is conflicted, if not confused, on the issue of gay rights his extraordinary behaviour last week, when he issued a detailed statement about his marriage in an attempt to quash rumours that he has had gay relationships, suggests he is also confused about the boundaries between public and private life.

Hague is now a cabinet minister, occupying the grand suite of offices in King Charles Street, London SW1, from which the Foreign Secretary presides over Britain's relations with the rest of the world. It's hardly as though he starts each morning with an empty diary, but four days ago one of the top items on his agenda was the delicate matter of his wife's gynaecological history.

In a spectacularly misguided attempt to counter rumours about his sexual orientation, Hague revealed that he and his wife Ffion (they married in 1997) have been trying to have children and she has suffered a series of miscarriages. One consequence was a rash of features about the misery caused by miscarriage, but the dominant reaction was bewilderment and a degree of distaste.

If Hague was, as it appeared, using intimate details of his marriage to "prove" that he wasn't gay, it didn't seem to have occurred to him that many gay men get married and have children, a circumstance confirmed last weekend by an announcement from Crispin Blunt, a ministerial colleague. The Tory MP and prisons minister announced that he had separated from his wife of 20 years, with whom he has two children, and decided to "come to terms" with his homosexuality.

Clearly, a couple's reproductive history is not definitive proof of heterosexuality, which makes Hague's decision to expose himself and his wife in this way all the more perplexing. The Conservative Party is supposed to be more tolerant and sophisticated about sexual matters than it has been in the past, a shift signalled by David Cameron's public apology last year for his party's support for Section 28.

Would it matter a jot if Hague were gay, or indeed bisexual, given that there are increasing numbers of self-identified gay MPs and ministers at Westminster? This isn't 1984, when the decision of Labour's Chris Smith to come out as the country's first openly gay MP was rightly seen as brave and ground-breaking.

In that sense, it's hard not to see the Foreign Secretary's problems as largely of his own making. Rumours about Hague's sexuality have circulated at Westminster for years, and if he was troubled by them, it was hardly sensible to share hotel rooms during the general election campaign with a handsome young aide, Chris Myers.

It was even less sensible to appoint the same young man – he is only 25, and does not have obvious qualifications for the job – to a coveted post as one of his special advisers. Last week, Myers resigned, leaving Hague to observe testily during a press conference with the German foreign minister that his former aide was "fed up with the political world – and who can blame him?"

It wasn't the only occasion in the past few days when Hague appeared not to understand how he had got himself, his wife and Myers into this unhappy situation. At the heart of the matter isn't so much a question about his sexuality – he denies being gay and no one has to date produced any evidence to the contrary – but his inconsistent attitude to homosexuality. During his campaign to become leader of the Tory party, Hague unexpectedly supported the idea of gay marriage, and in his Daily Mail article a decade ago, he said he believed that the age of consent for gay people should be 16.

But in the very same article, he made it clear that he would impose a three-line whip on Tory MPs to ensure that they supported the homophobic Section 28. The gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was sufficiently incensed to reveal that Hague had responded to a letter from the pressure group OutRage! and "refused to support gay equality" on a whole series of issues.

Hague is described on websites as voting "moderately" against equal rights for gay people. Some of his remarks last week – he described the rumours about himself and Myers as "malicious" and denied that he'd ever had an "improper" relationship with a man – suggest that his personal views on homosexuality are out of step in a world where gay couples are able to celebrate civil partnerships. When the rumours about him were at their height, he had the option of facing them down, limiting himself to an unequivocal denial and getting on with his job. Instead, he added fuel to the bonfire with a tasteless and defensive overreaction.

These days, most of us don't mind whether politicians are gay or straight, but an incontestable fact has emerged from the most catastrophic attempt at damage limitation that British politics has seen for many a year. Now we know that the person who cares most passionately about the Foreign Secretary's sexual orientation is none other than William Hague.

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