Nasty outing for a would-be mayor: Are the folk of Wimborne Minster ready for gay rocker Phil Webb? Not as a figurehead, they're not, and some are playing dirty. Nicholas Roe reports

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Phil Webb is the man who brought sex, drugs and rock'n'roll to Wimborne Minster, and if he were any kind of a politician he would have shut up about it by now.

But he is just the would-be mayor of this beautiful little Dorset town and not used to public scrutiny. So when someone asks him to talk about the dirty tricks campaign which threatens to whisk the coveted mayoral chain from his grasp he says sure, yes, sit down . . .

Here's the story. Phil Webb is a bisexual, rock-singing, 35-year-old unemployed stock-controller whom some people do not want to see as head of their community. So they told the local paper about the men in Mr Webb's life. Resulting headline: 'Yes, I am a bisexual, says would-be mayor'. You can imagine the shock, the rows, the uncertainty which now pervades the mayoral elections (to be held tomorrow), and Phil Webb's own life. Or can you?

Phil Webb is a thin, spiky-haired, diffident man who lives in Wimborne, just down the road from the council house where he grew up. 'I was born and bred in this town,' he says with pride.

He left school with seven O-levels and two A-levels which took him, briefly, to Aston University, which he hated. 'I was reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance at the time,' he says, 'and there was a chap in it who dropped out and did something boring for a while. So I went home . . .'

To a boring job sweeping up for the local builders' merchants. He dyed his hair, sang in a rock band, took uppers, downers, speed, acid, cannabis, rode a Triumph Bonnerville 750, and nursed a secret: 'I had girlfriends but it was because I felt that was what was expected of me. In fact, I am more attracted to men than women.' Key point: he did not tell his parents ('I didn't want to upset them').

Eventually he swept his way to promotion, became a stock-controller, stopped dyeing his hair. Three years ago a friend suggested he stand for Wimborne town council and, oddly enough, the self-confessed rebel jumped at the chance.

'I have been almost a public guru,' insists the man with a taste for popular philosophy. 'People like to ask me things, they respect my viewpoint. I thought the town council were a bunch of fuddy- duddies and it was time someone younger got involved.'

His mum helped to distribute leaflets to 160 election addresses, and out of 20 candidates for 12 council places, Phil Webb (Independent) came tenth.

Since then he has thrown himself into local affairs: lobbying for repairs to a tennis court, helping provide skateboard equipment for local teenagers. His rock band has raised funds for charity; he has become active in local youth groups.

And for three years no one made an issue of his sexuality . . . until a few weeks ago, after he was asked to stand in the mayoral elections. Mr Webb's opponent is a civil engineer called Clive Travers, and a straw poll among councillors has given Mr Webb the edge.

As Wimborne was mulling over these events, in early March, local people were stunned by a murder: Phyllis Saville, an 85-year-old widow, was stabbed to death as she walked to church. The town was left to mourn not just her death but a loss of innocence.

And now this. A leader in the Bournemouth Evening Echo on 20 April stated: 'Two Wimborne town councillors called the Echo to tell us that one of their colleagues, Philip Webb, who had been nominated as mayor, was bisexual. They did not like it. They planned to put a stop to it but they did not want to be quoted.'

However, Jackie Compton, mother of six, is a councillor who publicly opposes Webb: 'I was elected to represent the views of the people of Wimborne Minster who hold great traditional values,' she says now, 'and I am not sure that they are ready for such a radical move forward. That doesn't specifically imply his sexuality. You don't know Phil Webb. I do. With all due respect, he is 35 years old but acts and dresses like a gothic teenager. Wimborne is a very traditional place. We don't have experience of ethnic minorities or anything like that. I don't think his way of life would go down very well.'

She may be right. Asking six passers-by in Wimborne centre what they thought about having a gay mayor produced an even split. One woman shuddered and said, 'It seems all wrong to me.' A student said, 'It's his personal business.'

Mr Webb need not have admitted the sex and drugs and rebellious youth to the local reporter, but 'I thought, if I tell a lie then people who know will be able to hold it over me. But the main reason was that I am honest and I didn't regard it as an important issue.'

The News of the World then picked up the story and ran six paragraphs headed, 'Mr Mayor Wants It Both Ways'. The Evening Echo has carried half-a-dozen articles. The council called a meeting to criticise the (unnamed) informers, but did not vote on it. A senior church figure, involved with the local youth group on which Mr Webb sits, rang him up to ask about his sexual intentions towards young people. And Mr Webb had to tell his parents.

He did it after Sunday lunch, just before the story hit the press. He says it was 'painful'. He waited until his father had gone out to watch the football, and then told his mother, who replied that there were people in their part of the world who did not like that sort of thing, but he was big enough to live his own life. 'My father hasn't really spoken to me about it,' says Mr Webb. 'He made it clear he is supporting me but not necessarily my chosen lifestyle.'

One of his sisters wrote a gently reproving letter saying she would have preferred to have heard it from him rather than a newspaper, but she ended by inviting him to dinner.

'I didn't want to stand on a soapbox for gay rights,' he says. 'That choice has been taken away from me. I feel that all eyes are on me. Sometimes I think I don't want to be mayor . . . but I do want to be mayor of Wimborne. I would be absolutely proud.'

(Photograph omitted)

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