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Sunday, September 05, 2010

Just good friends

Just good friends

Why did foreign secretary William Hague choose to confront rumours about his private life so forcefully this week?

By Will Bramhill (Sunday Times)

William Hague and his former aide Christopher Myers at the 2009 Tory Conference (Paul Ellis)

William Hague dined early at the Hotel du Vin in Birmingham on April 29 as he prepared to attend the last televised leaders’ debate in the election campaign. His conversation with his young male companion was so animated that he did not notice Isabel Oakeshott, a member of the Sunday Times political staff, sitting at a table nearby.

Like Hague, she and her guests were preparing to go to Birmingham University to watch the debate. None of them recognised the young man Hague was eating with. “We knew all his advisers, so we were intrigued,” she said.

Next morning Oakeshott was surprised to see the pair again, at breakfast, then at the reception desk, checking out of what was obviously the same room. Although her instinct for a story was aroused, the incident seemed more curious than untoward.

But the bloggers thought differently. They soon also caught on to Hague’s friendship with Chris Myers, a 25-year-old Durham graduate and fellow Yorkshireman, who acted as Hague’s bag-carrier and driver during the election campaign. The two had first attracted attention when they were photographed last year walking along London’s embankment, casually dressed and clearly enjoying one another’s company.

After the election, Myers was hired as one of Hague’s special advisers, although he had no experience of high-level politics. As online interest in Myers grew, the photographs taken on the embankment surfaced in the press.

Rumours about the nature of their relationship spread through Westminster. Last week Myers resigned as the speculation began to make headlines. Hague, 49, put his marriage and political life on the line to quell suspicions that they were more than friends.

The foreign secretary made a statement that could hardly have been more impassioned or unequivocal. He said he had shared a room with Myers several times during the election campaign but “any suggestion that his appointment was due to an improper relationship between us is utterly false, as is any suggestion that I have ever been involved in a relationship with any man”.

Hague went on to talk about the heartache he and his wife had suffered as they tried to start a family, something they had never made public before. “We have encountered many difficulties and suffered multiple miscarriages and indeed are still grieving for the loss of a pregnancy this summer,” he said.

“It has been an immensely traumatic and painful experience but our marriage is strong and we will face whatever the future brings together ... It is very regrettable to have to make this personal statement, but we have often said to each other ‘if only they knew the truth. . .’ Well, this is the straightforward truth.”

Hague felt so strongly, say Westminster insiders, that he spoke out despite Downing Street advising him to give a more restrained and limited rebuttal. If any aspect of the statement turned out to be untrue it would rival Jonathan Aitken’s notorious claim as a Tory minister in the early 1990s that he was wielding the “simple sword of truth” against allegations of misconduct. Aitken turned out to have lied and the revelation destroyed his career.

Hague, surely, is too honest and clever for that, even though he was evidently not astute enough to see that, as the past week has shown, innocent actions can be misconstrued.

What is it about Hague that has made him the target of malicious rumours? Two men sharing a bedroom could quite easily be seen as innocent, even comic: think Father Dougal and Father Ted, tucked up in twin beds in the swirly-wallpapered bedroom on Craggy Island. Or think of Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise with their bed sketches, which have become classics of British comedy (although Morecambe apparently insisted on smoking his pipe in bed “for the masculinity”).

Hague’s problem seems to be that he has always had a flamboyant streak, evident even at 16 when, as the uppity northern boy from a comprehensive school, he stood up at the Conservative party conference and cheekily told the assembled crusties that it was his generation which would suffer the consequences of a Labour government because “half of you won’t be here in 30 or 40 years’ time”.

At Oxford, according to a contemporary, no one thought he was gay but they noticed he never had a girlfriend. He was mostly interested in politics and, as a contemporary notes, “some of us assumed he just wasn’t very highly sexed”.

Either way Hague has always been at ease in the company of gay men. As Welsh secretary, in the mid-1990s, he appointed the openly gay Barnaby Towns as a policy adviser. A few years later David Gold, who went on to be the Conservative party’s first openly gay parliamentary candidate, became his diary secretary.

“William didn’t know I was gay when I was diary secretary,” Gold has recalled. “When he did find out he was fine with it and just said, ‘Good for you’. Ffion made a beeline for me at a party and was wonderful about it. They are very relaxed, cosmopolitan people.”

Relaxed, cosmopolitan — hardly a description of many Conservative party members at the time and the company Hague kept must have made him suspect in some eyes. He was close friends with Alan Duncan, the gay MP, and was a lodger for a time in Duncan’s home near Westminster — in Gayfere Street.

Two years ago he was best man at Duncan’s civil partnership ceremony. Which makes it all the more odd that Hague reacted so strongly to rumours that he was gay last week. However, he seems to have reached the end of his tether as speculation by unnamed gossips on the web multiplied.

“I understand completely why William did what he did,” said Nadine Dorries, a fellow Conservative MP who was falsely accused by a Labour blogger last year of having a one-night stand with a married colleague. “When something is said about you and it’s wholly and completely untrue, there’s something in you that wants to defend yourself so violently that you almost defend yourself too much. Like me, he [Hague] was outraged and wounded and that’s what you do, you retaliate.”

Rumours about Hague and Myers had been circulating on the internet for weeks, the most offensive appearing on the Guido Fawkes political blog. Then a newspaper raised questions about Myers’ lack of experience and suitability as a political aide. Others made sly references to the rumours, one captioning a photograph of Hague in a baseball cap with the suggestion that he might be the “missing member of the Village People”.

Perhaps the story would have ended there but, behind the scenes, Hague was growing more and more angry and felt compelled to defend his decision to employ Myers. The Foreign Office issued a terse, two-line statement last Tuesday saying any suggestion that the foreign secretary’s relationship with Myers was anything other than professional was “wholly inaccurate and unfounded”.

It effectively confirmed Hague to be the victim of the rumours and the floodgates opened. Hague was appalled. He discussed the situation with Ffion and they decided to try to scotch the rumours once and for all.

Sally Bercow, wife of John Bercow, the Speaker, was one of many last week who said she believed Hague’s statement to be the result of “duff PR”. But insiders say the statement, laying bare his wife’s distress and pain, was Hague’s idea and he had refused to listen to those who tried to dissuade him from making it public.

Downing Street apparently cautioned him not to “pour fuel on the fire”. Hague’s strategy was one of short-term pain for long-term gain — a few days of headlines but a lifeline for his career.

Given that Hague has a reputation as a smart political operator — revitalising his career after a disastrous stint as party leader to take one of the great offices of state — how could he fail to see that his room-sharing might be misconstrued?

Although he has many friends at Westminster and is known for his quick humour, one insider said he could also be “a bit detached and buttoned-up” on some subjects, someone who would not instantly see how his actions played out in the wider world.

Yet no politician can be so naive as to imagine that admirers such as Hague’s “Tyke mafia”, a group of bright young aides from Yorkshire, would fail to attract attention. Nor that friendships with handsome young men, however promising on the foreign policy front, would go unnoticed.

Sexuality is still a difficult area for politicians. David Laws, briefly chief secretary to the Treasury, was forced to resign from the coalition government when it came to light that £40,000 of taxpayers’ money had been paid to his landlord, who was also his lover.

It was a financial rather than a sexual scandal — but if Laws had not been trying to keep his homosexuality secret he might never have got into such a muddle.

Less than a fortnight ago Crispin Blunt, the prisons minister, announced he was leaving home to come to terms with his sexuality. His wife Victoria was said to be ”completely traumatised” by his admission that he was gay and their 20-year marriage was at an end. Friends said she felt betrayed, especially because she had made huge sacrifices to support her husband’s political life.

Now Ffion Hague has had to sacrifice her privacy on the altar of political ambition. She must hope that the gain proves worth the price.

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