Hughes: 'No, I'm not gay, but it should not matter if I was'

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The interview in which Simon Hughes gave an answer for which he has since apologised was conducted in a relaxed atmosphere on his home ground, in a school in the Bermondsey constituency he knows so well.

We spoke for 40 to 50 minutes. Nothing was off the record. Most of the talk was about his politics and the future of the Liberal Democrats, but Mr Hughes was entering a leadership election triggered by a secret in the private life of the previous Liberal Democrat leader. It was natural to ask if he had considered the scrutiny that his private life would now come under.

Mr Hughes said he had thought about it frequently. "I take the same view as David Cameron and other sensible people, that there is a line to be drawn, and beyond that one is entitled to a private life," he said.

He added that his colleagues in the Liberal Democrats "respect the fact that we all should have privacy", and he expressed regret that Charles Kennedy had not been able to deal with his drink problem in private. The next question was: "Are you gay?"

It did not appear to take him by surprise. With no hesitation, and no sign of embarrassment, Mr Hughes replied: "No, I'm not, but it absolutely should not matter if I was. If I was, and if people were to judge me on that, I would ask them to think again.

"There is no reason why you shouldn't have a gay leader of a party, or even a gay prime minister. I don't think this is an issue."

I asked if he had thought about marriage. He replied: "Often. I haven't been as a successful as I would have liked, as those involved could tell you, only you won't get their names from me.

"I suppose it becomes a little more difficult as you grow older because you become more ingrained in your ways, and politics isn't the best profession for it because of the demands on your time, but I'm hopeful. It would be nice. Perhaps after I've been leader."

There was no one else in the room, apart from The Independent's photographer. No contender in the recent Conservative election, nor any senior Labour politician, would be interviewed without a witness, because interviews can end with the subject claiming they were misquoted or entrapped.

But there were no complaints this time. Mr Hughes's press spokesman rang to say thank you, and when I met Mr Hughes two days later, he was cordial. He said he hoped the interview would put a "firewall" around his private life. At first, he thought it had. Sadly, he was wrong.