The party's vice-chairman, Archie Norman, took the rare step of rebutting comments by the former minister that homosexuals could not be trusted with senior office, such as home secretary. In a letter to The Daily Telegraph about the BBC's ban on references in its programmes to the private life of Peter Mandelson, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Lord Tebbit said that, just like Freemasons, gay politicians "should not be in a position to do each other favours". The former Tory chairman also said if the claims about Mr Mandelson were true, "he has my respect for keeping the fact to himself rather than flaunting it". As Tory MPs raised the issue in the Commons, Lord Tebbit's letter forced Mr Norman to declare that homosexuals were welcome in the party.
In an unprecedented call for greater tolerance of gay candidates, he said sexuality should be no bar to progress. "Politics should be a matter of integrity ... We respect the fact that there are very able people who are not part of a normal family, who have different lifestyles, who can represent their constituents and the country extremely well, and we want them in the Conservative Party."
A Labour source yesterday described the BBC ban as a "blunder" and "incompetence".
Eric Forth, Tory MP for Bromley and Chislehurst, tried to raise the issue on a point of order in the Commons but was swiftly rebuffed by the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd. The ban was "an absolutely unjustified trammelling" of press freedom which stemmed from "some sort of high-level cronyism between elements in the Government and elements at the senior level of the BBC," Mr Forth said. Lord Tebbit's letter prompted a wave of condemnation from the Liberal Democrats, Labour and gay groups.
Richard Allan, a Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "The logic of his argument would lead us to have only celibates or eunuchs in positions of authority."
Stephen Twigg, the openly gay Labour MP for Enfield Southgate, said: "Thank goodness we are no longer in the days when Lord Tebbit's views counted for anything in government."
David Allison, a spokesman for OutRage, which campaigns for homosexual equality, described the comments as "typical Tebbitry".