Leading Article: Public opinion is well ahead of press on private conduct

IT HAS been an open secret in Westminster for some time, but this should be put on the record in the public interest: Nick Brown is a rather good Minister of Agriculture. He has only been in the job only since July and has achieved three impossible things before Christmas. First, the farmers have stopped whingeing about a townie Government conspiring against them. Second, he said his predecessor's ban on beef on the bone was silly, and promised it would go. And third, he got EU vets to agree that the ban on British beef should be lifted, which it may be in January. Well done. End of story? Well, not quite.

When Matthew Parris asserted on Newsnight two weeks ago that there were definitely two members of the Cabinet who were gay, and named them as Chris Smith and Peter Mandelson, Nick Brown's friends shifted uncomfortably. They could feel the men in dirty raincoats from the News of the World closing in. It did not take them long. After a brief detour around Clapham Common with an ex-cabinet minister, they arrived in the Downing Street press office, wondering with mock innocence whether the Prime Minister had any comment on their story. This time they did not even bother fitting it up with the traditional and fraudulent justification of the public interest, because there is not the shred of such a defence in this case.

What can be done? The press code of conduct has failed to protect Mr Brown's privacy, despite its clear declaration that "everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private life and family", and its insistence that this can be overridden only in the public interest. If newspapers do invade privacy, the commission "will require a full explanation by the editor of how the public interest was served".

That we cannot wait to see. It would be bolting the stable door after the event in this case, but it is essential that the Press Complaints Commission shows the News of the World no mercy: a line must be drawn.

At a lower level of hypocrisy, we trust that Mr Parris feels a little embarrassed about his facetious aside on television: after all, when he was an MP he was in the closet. At least he has cause to be embarrassed, while Mr Brown, who said he was "deeply embarrassed", had no reason to be so.

What is heartening about the story, bleak though so many of its implications are, is the reaction to it. From the Prime Minister down, the universal view is that it does not matter what politicians get up to in their private lives provided it does not affect their ability to do their jobs. Mr Brown has been strengthened by his popularity among MPs - remarkable for a former chief whip. Nor will his constituents in Newcastle shun him; it is mere snobbery to suggest that the voters of the North-east are fundamentally more intolerant than those of Islington South.

If it had not been for the unfortunate conjunction with the resignation of the Welsh Secretary, Ron Davies, whose private life did (at least in his view) threaten to interfere with his public duties, we would be proceeding smoothly and quietly to the acceptance of homosexuals as equals in all walks of life.

With several south Londoners awaiting trial, the Davies affair is going to drag on. But the harassment of Nick Brown will probably quickly pass. The trail has already been blazed, with great courage and dignity, by Chris Smith - so that we have been governed without any sensation by a Cabinet including openly gay ministers for 18 months already. In the end, protection against the kind of intrusion suffered by Mr Mandelson and Mr Brown will come only when the response to such so-called revelations is "So what?" Then there will be no need for a public interest defence, because the public will not be interested. As the Labour MP Ben Bradshaw said yesterday, we are not there yet. But we are on the way.