David Cameron was urged to sack one of his frontbench team who said the age of consent for homosexuals should not have been lowered to 16 because it put teenage boys at "serious physical risk" and in danger of catching HIV.
Julian Lewis, the shadow minister for Defence and Conservative parliamentary candidate for the Hampshire seat of New Forest East, wrote to a constituent last week saying he had been "very strongly against" lowering the age of consent for gays from 18 to 16 because of the "seriously increased risk of HIV". He appeared to compare it with the decision to prevent service personnel aged under 18 from fighting on frontlines. Last night, Dr Lewis reiterated his view, telling The Independent that anyone aged 16 to 18 who had unprotected gay sex was "at risk, and potentially at risk of their lives".
His outspoken views have reopened debate about the party's stance on gay and lesbian rights. Two weeks ago, the shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling, suggested that owners of bed-and-breakfast hotels should have the right to turn away gay couples.
On Tuesday, Mr Cameron attempted to draw a line under the row by declaring the matter was "all sorted" following an apology from Mr Grayling.
The age of consent for gay men was lowered from 18 to 16 in 2000. Dr Lewis wrote last week: "There is a seriously increased risk of HIV infection from male homosexual activity. When it comes to legalising practices that involve serious risk, I believe the higher limit should apply. This is the reason we no longer allow 16- and 17-year-olds into frontline situations in the armed forces, for example."
Dr Lewis, 58, has a history of voting against legislation enshrining gay rights. He opposed adoptions by gay couples and also battled against the repeal of Section 28 – a law enacted by Margaret Thatcher's Tory government in 1988 to prevent schools from "promoting" homosexuality. Dr Lewis, does, however, back civil partnerships.
"One of the criticisms commonly made of gay relationships is that very often they do not last," he explained in his letter. "It therefore seems obvious to me that, when a gay couple wish to commit to each other, by forming a permanent relationships, they should be encouraged and assisted in every way."
He added: "I wish to avoid the cliché which begins 'some of my best friends are... ' but it happens to be true that my partner, Fiona, and I do indeed have gay friends." Defending his comments last night, Dr Lewis said he would have supported keeping the age of consent for gay men at 18. He said he had not intended to make the "preposterous suggestion" that gay sex was as dangerous as fighting on the frontline.
However, he went on to say that engaging in unprotected gay sex put teenagers "at risk, and potentially at risk of their lives". Dr Lewis added: "It is nevertheless true that someone is just as much dead if they are among one of the much smaller percentage of people who would be unfortunate enough to contract a deadly disease through a form of sexual activity as they are if they are in the frontline and they find themselves being injured or killed."
Challenged about his views on the dangers of homosexual sex, he said: "I do not hold myself up as any kind of expert in this and I am willing to be shown I'm wrong if I am wrong, but I honestly don't think I am wrong."
The Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, urged the Conservative leader to sack Dr Lewis from his shadow cabinet. He said: "[Mr Cameron has] been seeking the votes of gay people ... but [his] frontbench team includes people who are against any notion of homosexual equality. [He needs] to show some leadership and sack Mr Lewis."
Last night, the Conservative leadership distanced itself from Dr Lewis' remarks, but allowed him to keep his job as shadow defence minister. "These are Dr Lewis' long held and personal views," a spokesman said. "They are not the view of the Conservative Party and the terms in which he expressed them is wrong. Under this Labour government we have seen a massive increase in HIV infections and STDs across all the population – straight and gay."
Highlights of the day
Mistake of the day
The Tories have another high-profile backer – Robert Mugabe. The Zim Daily reports that President Mugabe is reminiscing about the old days when he used to have tea with John Major and complaining about how much better things were with a Tory government.
Caveat of the day
Oxford University Tories are being kept on a tight leash. The Conservative Association has told its members not to put the "vote for change" slogan over pictures of them in black ties drinking port on Facebook in case it sends out the wrong message to voters.
Admission of the day
A very relieved Tory-supporting Sun delivered happy news in a front page exclusive on Tuesday: their poll showed the Liberal Democrats' surge in support was "on the wane". But a small box at the bottom of page 4 gave the bad news yesterday – their poll now puts Clegg's party back in the lead.
Dig of the day
Harriet Harman avoids the temptation to have a cheap shot, telling New Statesman's James Macintyre she's always thought David Cameron has "a sense of being born to rule, entitlement" and accused the Tory leader of being "arrogant" and having been backed by "pots of money".
Snub of the day
Ken Clarke has put Nick Clegg firmly in his place. The veteran Tory was friends with the Liberal Democrat leader's father and says he would have wanted Clegg the younger to go into "serious politics", rather than the "strange wasteland of Liberal Democrat politics". Good advice to give the election frontrunner.