Simon Hughes will try today to prevent his faltering campaign for the Liberal Democrat leadership being fatally damaged by his admission that he is bisexual.
The party president confessed yesterday to having had gay affairs, 11 days after he denied he was gay in an interview with The Independent. He apologised for what he called "clearly misleading" remarks and admitted that he might "pay a price".
Party insiders believe the controversy will harm his leadership prospects because it raises questions about his honesty and judgement. The bookmakers were quick to move him from second to third place in the leadership stakes, behind the front-runner, Sir Menzies Campbell, and Chris Huhne.
Although his rivals defended Mr Hughes's right to stand, some Liberal Democrats were dismayed that the shambolic contest was again overshadowed by personal revelations. The resignation of Charles Kennedy after he admitted a drink problem was followed by that of the home affairs spokesman Mark Oaten after allegations of a relationship with a rent boy.
Some party figures hoped that Mr Hughes would pull out of the race, but his spokesman denied he had come under any pressure to withdraw. He will launch of his campaign in Manchester at lunchtime today.
Mr Hughes made his admission to The Sun after the newspaper discovered what it described as "pretty incontrovertible" evidence that he had phoned a gay chat line, Mantalk. He offered the paper an interview, admitting he had had "both homsexual and heterosexual relationships".
The 54-year-old unmarried MP, who said he had never paid for sex, admitted he had considered quitting the contest during a "fairly torrid" week for him and his party but had decided to carry on. "I apologise for any harm I have caused the party, family, friends and colleagues. But I believe I can do the leadership job and the political job. Most people don't think one's private sexual life should be be a barrier to that, provided it has been legal," he said.
When The Independent asked him if he was gay, Mr Hughes replied: "No, I am not." Asked if he had thought about getting married, he said: " Often", adding: "I haven't been as a successful as I would have liked, as those involved could tell you."
He was challenged over these remarks when he appeared on BBC Radio 5 Live yesterday with his two leadership rivals. He explained: "I have had relations with women and men, so stereotyping and pigeon-holing is not actually that easy, and I didn't want to get into that misleading debate. It would have been better for me to have said what I have always said, which is that this is a private matter. I hope it shows some, you might say, inappropriate innocence. I gave a reply that wasn't untrue but was clearly misleading. I apologise for that."
The Liberal Democrat president said his aim in his Independent interview was to "erect a stronger fence" around his private life - but admitted that it did not work because he was challenged about the issue in every subsequent interview. It came back "with a vengeance" after Mr Oaten's resignation last Saturday.
He said a string of allegations about his private life had been put to his office this week - most of them "entirely untrue". But when The Sun made claims which "had a little truth in them" he decided his position was "unmanageable".
"I hope people will understand why those in public life try to put that sort of fence around them. I hope they will understand that it should not disbar people - not just me - from public office or doing a job," he said. I took a decision [in 1980] that I would seek to keep my private life private. I have held to that decision through all the elections I have fought. But there comes a time when it is not sustainable."
The MP for North Southwark and Bermondsey appealed to Liberal Democrat members to judge him on his experience, vision and campaigning. Even though his admission was prompted by the media he argued that his handling of the issue had shown his leadership credentials.
"I hope they [party members] might think one other thing: that having gone through this experience and not disappeared, not backed away, that is a test and a sign that I'm not afraid of dealing with things that may be a criterion for leadership," he said.
But a Liberal Democrat member from Southwark who phoned the Radio 5 programme told Mr Hughes that she felt "badly let down". She said: "Your sexuality is such a non-issue. Anyone in Southwark who knows about you knew that you were gay or bisexual." She added: "Because he hasn't told the truth about it, it makes me question what I have been voting for all these years."
Ladbrokes lengthened the odds against Mr Hughes becoming leader to 5-1 following his revelations. Sir Menzies Campbell, the acting party leader, is the 10-11 favourite, with Chris Huhne, economics spokesman, at 12-5.
As Sir Menzies and Mr Huhne urged Liberal Democrats to concentrate on policy issues, a YouGov poll for The Daily Telegraph showed that the party has been badly damaged by its recent troubles. The poll of more than 2,000 voters put the Liberal Democrats on just 13 per cent five points down on December and the worst rating since 2001.
Does it matter?
Piers Morgan, former editor of The Mirror and co-owner of Press Gazette
"I couldn't give a monkeys if Simon Hughes is gay, but I do care that he has lied about it. It would be quite nice if the Liberal Democrats could find someone who did not think that an essential part of their sales pitch was to tell porky pies. If you are honest, you stand a better chance of being elected."
Frederick Forsyth, author
"It doesn't matter a damn whether friends, colleagues or politicians are gay. It would be wise for them to say so openly. I don't think less of him, but he obviously felt it could affect his career and maybe thought it would make him less attractive to voters."
A S Byatt, author
"I do not think it matters if public figures are gay. And any sexual misconduct, unless you are going to bed with spies, is your own business and your wife's business. I dislike the prurient way that the press goes about this, and think that the villain in this piece is The Sun."
Stephen Fry, actor
"I sympathise with Mr Hughes. It is very easy to get over-judgmental, but people have personal issues, families and friends, that can affect whether they are open. Things have changed during the time that Mr Hughes has been an MP, and it is much harder to announce a change mid-way through your career. "
Julian Bennett, fashionista from Queer Eye for a Straight Guy
"If people live a lie for many years, it makes things harder when they come out. A lot of people wonder why you would keep being gay a secret, but it can be difficult to suddenly declare that you are gay. I will hold hands with my partner on the street, but was not 'out' until I was 26."
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