Wherever Ivan Massow goes, controversy never seems far behind. Young, urbane, outrageously wealthy and openly gay, the self-made millionaire entrepreneur once had the ear of the Tory leadership and was tipped for political stardom.
Now, 13 years after quitting the party amid a political storm over his clashes with the “loony right”, he has returned to the fray in the middle of the debate over gay marriage, between the progressive and traditionalist wings of the party he once called “intolerant and just plain nasty”.
On the same day last week that Mr Massow, 45, applied to be the Conservative candidate for his Somerton and Frome constituency, the local party chairman, Edmund Costelloe, resigned after five decades, expressing outrage at the leadership’s “attack on marriage between a man and a woman”. The timing, both men insist, was a coincidence, but Mr Massow has once again found himself cast as champion of the socially liberal wing of his party – and seems more than willing to take up the mantle.
“I think the majority of the party are on board on gay marriage,” he told The Independent at his London home. “But it’s totemic and it’s a fight.” The traditionalist resistance to the Bill represented “the last stand of a breed that elevate themselves by finding people to look down on or to be different,” he said.
When Mr Massow quit the party 13 years ago, the effect was explosive. Nowhere was there a more potent symbol of the party’s diversity and modernity than the millionaire who made a name for himself founding the first financial advice firm aimed at gay clients, after facing years of discrimination from mainstream insurers.
Raised in the care system, Mr Massow had to overcome poverty, abuse and a minimal education. He left school at 16 with one O-level and set up his first company aged 23.
Good looking and with a taste for publicity (an early poster campaign featured an image of him embracing his boyfriend with the tag line “For the life you don’t want Allied Dunbar to know about”), he was courted by the Conservative Party establishment and soon found himself in the inner circle of William Hague’s young leadership team.
“I was adviser to the party leader and George Osborne was the speech writer, so I was telling George what to write for William,” he recalled, with a chuckle at the irony. For a brief spell in the 1990s he shared a London flat with Nick Boles, now the planning minister, who is also openly gay, and Michael Gove, now the Education Secretary.
Mr Massow’s political views had always been at odds with his position as a gay rights advocate. Inspired by Margaret Thatcher in his teens – “her politics seemed to talk of meritocracy and being able to lift yourself up whereas all I heard from the Labour Party was how to stay in the pits” – he remained far to the left of many Tories on social issues.
He clashed with traditionalists over the notorious Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which blocked the promotion of homosexuality in state schools, and in 2000 dramatically defected to Labour.
“In order to bring about the change I thought was necessary, I felt I had to leave,” he said. “I paid the price though. I’ve been completely quiet for almost eight years now while I’ve seen all my friends ascend to the front bench … or become Prime Minister.”
His resignation highlighted a crisis of identity within the Tories – one that many felt was reconciled when a young, socially progressive, pro-gay politician called David Cameron became leader. “Everyone at the time accused me of being a contradiction but now those contradictions are mainstay – being gay and a Tory is just taken for granted,” Mr Massow said.
In his view there is only one more “baby step” left for the party – gay marriage. “Bringing the Tory Party over these hurdles is all I’ve ever wanted to do. The reason why, in 1999, William Hague decided to stand me next to Margaret Thatcher at the party conference was to show that the party was moving in this direction. The work started that day.”
His years outside the Tory fold have not been without incident. He was ousted from his position as chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 2002, after describing most conceptual art as “pretentious, self-indulgent, craftless tat”. The name at the top of the petition calling for his dismissal was Tracey Emin – whom he now counts as a close friend.
On a personal front, the death of his boyfriend Jamie in 1996 began a gradual descent into alcoholism. He moved to Barcelona before giving up alcohol and returning to the UK five years ago.
“It’s not like I was living on a park bench. I was fully functioning,” he says of his time away. “But I realised I wasn’t developing very strong relationships with people. I wasn’t fully engaged. I was spending too much time alone. Now I don’t drink, don’t go out clubbing or anything stupid like that. I don’t even eat sugar. I’m up at four in morning on the whole, have done all my work by six in the morning. Then I have this entire day.”