Ashby looked 'totally at ease' in gay pub

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David Ashby, the Tory MP, was allegedly spotted in one of London's most famous gay pubs - wearing an anorak and eyeing up customers - by a journalist who had stopped off for a drink there.

Andrew Pierce, a Times journalist who formerly worked for the newspaper's political department, told a libel jury yesterday he visited the Queens Head pub in Chelsea on 14 December, 1991, at about 8.30pm. According to Mr Pierce, Mr Ashby arrived in casual clothes shortly afterwards and was unmistakable.

"To my astonishment David Ashby was walking towards me. You don't usually expect to see a Conservative MP in a gay pub. He was inches from my face, he looked directly at me and I looked at him," Mr Pierce said.

"I'd seen him in the House of Commons on many occasions. I remember thinking at the time, I bet he's married, I bet his wife's in the constituency. He was walking round the bar, stopping ... looking at some of the customers. He looked totally at ease. Most Tory MPs in my experience would run a mile if they stepped foot in a gay pub."

Mr Ashby, MP for Leicestershire North West since 1983, was particularly upset by the suggestion in Mr Pierce's witness statement that he had as much luck with customers in the pub, as he did making an impact in the House of Commons.

Mr Pierce was giving evidence in the second week of Mr Ashby's libel case against the Sunday Times and Andrew Neil, its former editor. He denies he is homosexual.

According to Mr Pierce, who stayed in the pub for 45 minutes before attending a party held by Stonewall, the gay campaign group, the Queens Head is an unmistakably gay haunt.

"It's by the Chelsea barracks, which made it very popular," he said, to muffled laughter from the court. "You'd have to be blind not to realise. It's wall to wall with men ... gay magazines are scattered over the bar, and there are gay men canoodling. The bar staff are as camp as a row of tents, they call each other 'love' and 'dear' and even have girls names for each other."

Many of the customers were also dressed in traditional gay clothes according to Mr Pierce, with lumberjack jackets, jeans, short haircuts and moustaches.

When Mr Pierce attended a launch party at the Cabinet War Rooms on 31 October this year, for a book he co-edited called Great Parliamentary Scandals, he said he was confronted by Mr Ashby whom he was surprised to see at the event because he featured in the book.

"I wanted to avoid any potentially embarrassing or compromising conversation. It was to no avail," Mr Pierce said. "David Ashby came straight over towards me, and he berated me that I was about to take part in this case. He was aggressive and intimidating."

The case continues.