The Sketch: Beware ageing Tory men baring their sexual prejudice

"YOU SIMPLY cannot have it both ways," said Gerald Howarth indignantly, intervening during the Home Secretary's speech on the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill.

Well you can, of course. Indeed, you can have it in a whole raft of ways that have probably never even been screened in Mr Howarth's mental cinema - an over-heated local fleapit that is largely given over to low-budget horror movies.

Showing yesterday, as MPs again discussed lowering the age of consent for male homosexuals, was that Tory cult hit Predatory Older Men - a lurid shocker in which a sinister army of buggers emerges from its hiding places, released by the foolish legislative tinkering of a liberal government.

One does wonder what happened to some of these members in their tender years. What scout hut atrocities or dormitory fumblings lie behind their fixed conviction that "homosexual" and "paedophile", while not precisely synonymous, are as close as makes no difference?

It wasn't all Mr Howarth's fault, it's true, though it grieves me to confess it. The fact that the Government have yoked together two entirely distinct issues - the correction of a long-standing inequity and the extension of sexual protection for minors does tend to muddy waters that are already turbid with prejudice and sexual panic.

Even Jack Straw, who had the decency to place an unequivocal statement about equality before the law, betrays some confusion on these matters. "It is not a question of encouraging one lifestyle over another," he assured the House, perhaps anxious to forestall Tory terrors that the Government is seeking to encourage more of its citizens to have it both ways.

He was quickly called on his vocabulary by Ben Bradshaw, one of the few MPs who is open about his homosexuality: "Lifestyle" implied some element of choice, he protested, whereas most evidence suggested that a person's sexuality was considerably less whimsical than that. "I agree," stuttered the Home Secretary. "And I hope he'll note that I haven't used that term." I hope Hansard notes that he had, only seconds before.

The honourable member for Bigotry East got him off the hook by shouting something about having the choice to maintain self- discipline, an intervention seconded by the members for Buggery-on-the- Brain and Molestation Magna.

The response from the Tory frontbench was far more considered, touching even, with Sir Norman Fowler recalling his own sexual coming of age during the Aids crisis. There have been reports that this was an eye-opening time for Sir Norman, exposing him to a crash course in the many exotic ways in which two human lego bricks can click together.

Rather winningly, he referred to the jokes about his besmirched innocence and confessed to learning two valuable lessons. The first was that the public wants information from government, not moral guidance, and the second was they can be mature and sensible about such matters. "We should proceed with a certain amount of humility," he said, pointing out that the party wasn't exactly in a good position to hand out moral lectures.

I confess that I was seduced - his speech was reflective and unpartisan. It recognised the limits of legislation when it comes to redirecting human lust and it refused to pander to the prejudices of members on both sides of the House. I was just about to surrender to him completely when his true intentions became clear: Sir Norman opposed the lowering of the age of consent, on the grounds that opinion polls showed the public didn't want it.

Indeed, I did wonder briefly whether I might be able to bring a prosecution under the new legislation, having been so shabbily abused by an older man in a position of trust.

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