Politics: Hague lets Tory back gay rights in mayoral race

WILLIAM HAGUE has given his approval for Tory mayoral candidates to campaign for gay rights, despite sacking a frontbench spokesman for holding the same views against a controversial ban on the "promotion" of homosexuality.

Steven Norris, front-runner to become the Tories' mayoral candidate, said yesterday he had been assured by senior party figures close to the party leader that his stance on Section 28 of the Local Government Act was not a problem.

On Thursday, Shaun Woodward, the Conservatives' London spokesman, was sacked for refusing to back the party line on the issue. The Tories want to retain the ban on "promotion" of homosexuality by councils and schools and oppose government plans to remove it.

Mr Norris said the issue was the only one on which his views differed significantly from the party position and, although important, it was not central to the job of mayor. "I have spoken to senior people in the party about this and their response was that it was my view and it was up to me how I expressed it," he said. "I am not a member of the front bench and I am not bound by collective responsibility."

A party spokesman echoed Mr Norris's remarks. "The candidate for mayor for London has a degree of independence," he said.

Another Tory candidate for mayor, Ivan Massow, is openly gay and supports Mr Woodward's opposition to the ban. "I think in many respects there are people who are very high party who would like the Conservative Party to become more modern and feel it is being run by the loony right," he said yesterday.

Mr Woodward, who defied his party because he said Section 28 prevented teachers from dealing with homophobic bullying, said yesterday that he had been sacked by pager.

In an interview with LBC radio, he said he was told in a meeting with his Chief Whip, James Arbuthnot, that he must support the party or resign. He then returned home and took off his jacket, leaving his pager in the pocket. An hour later he realised he had missed three messages.

"I took my pager out of my pocket at twenty-to-seven to discover that I had three pages, the last of which - at 6.20 from the Chief Whip - said, `If I don't hear from you by 6.30, you are no longer a member of the front bench'," Mr Woodward said.

"I rang him straight away at 6.40 and said, `I have only just got this page'. He said, `It is too late'. I said, `What, do you mean by that, are you telling me I'm fired?' He said, `Yes'."

Mr Woodward said he had not yet heard from Mr Hague about why he was dismissed.

The Conservative Party leader, meanwhile, defended his decision. "We have learnt to our cost in the past that if discipline is not enforced then the party suffers from it, so discipline will be enforced," he said.

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