Leading article: Mr Hague is out of touch with the nation on gay rights

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The Independent Culture
WILLIAM HAGUE seems to be redefining the job of leader of the Opposition. His predecessors have tried to make life as difficult as possible for those in power, so that the electorate realised how much better suited they were to forming a government. Mr Hague, or Poor William as he always seems to be called nowadays, takes the opposite tack. He waits until the Government is in difficulty, then pops up to divert the nation's attention back to the continuing crisis that is the modern Conservative Party.

You almost wonder whether Mr Hague is secretly in the pay of Millbank. Certainly, Labour can feel grateful to him for (again) getting them out of a tight spot. There was John Prescott taking a hammering over his transport policies. Cue Mr Hague, breathing fiery gobbledygook against a frontbench spokesman whose main crime is to believe that sexuality is a personal affair. Result: Tory lunacy is back in the spotlight, and Mr Prescott has escaped to India leaving his woes behind him.

It is extraordinary ineptitude. Mr Hague's sacking of Shaun Woodward, spokesman on London, was intended to send a clear message: that this judo- loving leader will not be thrown by those who fail to follow his line. In reality, he looks weak and out of touch. Mr Hague has sought to portray his Conservative Party as tolerant, and he himself even seemed liberal on gay rights. But this liberalism has been ditched in the panic to find something for his party to stand for.

Once again, he is misjudging the nation. There has been a sea change in social attitudes to homosexuality in recent years. In the Seventies, the House of Lords still felt able to uphold a ban on gay personal ads, which were "corrupting". Today, even the Tory blue-rinse brigade are happy to select a candidate for Parliament who admits to having had gay relationships.

Mr Hague's behaviour is especially absurd given that Mr Woodward, a director of the charity Childline, was concerned above all to protect the victims of homophobic bullying. The daft Clause 28, which supposedly protects children from the promotion of homosexuality, serves instead to expose them to vicious bullies. "Tories - the party that stands up for bullies" is unlikely to be much of a vote-winner, even in the dodgiest corners of the realm. Unless, of course, Mr Hague secretly shares with Mr Blair the conviction that New Labour is the rightful party of government.