Friends of one high-flying Conservative politician, viewed as a future Cabinet minister, say he has been leant on heavily 'to conform' after the party hierarchy became concerned about his close friendship with a male fellow MP.
The new hardening of attitudes has also affected the choice of candidates for the forthcoming European elections. At a selection meeting at the weekend, one unmarried would- be MEP was rejected because party managers did not believe his fiancee was genuine. 'They were worried he was gay and asked his friends, who said the girlfriend might be a put-up job,' said someone who was at the meeting.
Previously, despite mutterings from the rank and file, unmarried Tory MPs have been tolerated and one or two, such as Sir Edward Heath, have gone on to assume high office. Since the Prime Minister's 'back to basics' campaign and a seemingly unrelenting stream of damaging disclosures, Tory officials are poring over private lives.
The pressure, say friends of one unmarried minister, has been discreet and firm - a private word here, a piece of unsolicited advice there - rather than an outright order to find a fiancee. He has been left in no doubt as to what the party bosses would like him to do.
Last night, Chris Smith, the gay Labour MP, asked: 'When will the Conservative Party wake up to the fact that what matters is not whether someone is straight, gay, single or married but how good they are as an MP or minister?'
Mr Smith said he hoped 'everybody on all sides of the Commons will address the age of consent debate (next Monday) on its merits rather than in relation to the tittle- tattle which has emerged in the past few weeks.'
Matthew Parris, the gay former Tory MP and Times columnist, said last night that while it was unlikely the party had taken a policy decision on homosexuals, 'being a bachelor has become a problem with constituencies these days'.
He had no doubt that even a minister would have been leaned upon. 'There wouldn't have been anything explicit, just a friendly piece of advice that if he was seen with a girlfriend it would help.'
Mr Parris questioned the judgement of Central Office and the Whips, in the light of the damage caused to 'back to basics' by the Tim Yeo and Hartley Booth affairs. 'The way things are going it's more of a problem if MPs are heterosexual. They should be reversing the question and asking, 'You're not a heterosexual, are you?' '
Inside Parliament, page 6
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