Labour MP accused of plot against gay Tory

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A Labour MP was accused yesterday of trying to use her gay researcher to "dig the dirt" on her Conservative rival, whom she also believed to be gay.

A Labour MP was accused yesterday of trying to use her gay researcher to "dig the dirt" on her Conservative rival, whom she also believed to be gay.

CandyAtherton, MP for Falmouth and Camborne since 1997, asked her researcher, Paul Phillips, to try to find out if Ashley Crossley, the Conservative selected to stand against her, visited Soho bars looking for men, an industrial tribunal was told yesterday. Mr Phillips, 36, from east London, who is claiming discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, said: "I believe that the only reason Candy asked me to check on Mr Crossley's lifestyle was because I was a gay man. I do not believe that this was a normal part of a research assistant's job or that she would have asked a straight man or woman to do it." He added: "She may well have asked such a person to research newspaper articles but to check on Mr Crossley's friends, where he went, etc, needed a gay man. I felt humiliated that she should expect me to behave like this."

The only reason why such information would be sought would be to damage Mr Crossley, because Cornwall was a "homophobic area", said Mr Phillips. "[I was] being asked to dig the dirt on Mr Crossley. Facts about Mr Crossley's sexual orientation and lifestyle could only be used to damage him. There could be no other reason for wanting this kind of information."

Mr Phillips, employed by Ms Atherton for 12 months until July last year, said she had told him she had found out Mr Crossley was gay and visited bars looking for men.

"Candy said this was an area where I would have more contacts than her. Candy said with some amusement that [Mr Crossley] had been held up at knifepoint in his flat by a young man who he had taken home and suggested that was where his interest in crimes and victims of crime had come from.

"Candy said she wasn't going to do anything that was homophobic but she just believed in people being open about what they did. She then said she was 'out' about not being gay and he should be 'out' about being gay."

Mr Phillips said that because Ms Atherton, although married, had been the subject of rumours claiming that she was a lesbian, she would be aware of the damage information or speculation about a politician's sexuality could potentially cause for their career. Mr Phillips said there were several occasions when he mentioned he had been socialising and Ms Atherton asked if he had been out with Mr Crossley.

On another occasion, when invited to stay at her mother's house, he had asked if he could bring a friend. "As long as it is just a 'friend'," Ms Atherton allegedly said. Mr Phillips added: "This appeared to bear out my increasing thoughts that Candy was homophobic or at least considered that gay men were unable to behave in an acceptable way."

Derek Marshall, counsel for Ms Atherton, said Mr Phillips' claims were "fantasy". He said to Mr Phillips: "You knew ... she didn't care two hoots about Crossley's sexuality. So she changed from a tolerant, liberal person to be a homophobe - is that what you are saying?"

Mr Phillips replied: "I have my own views about that."

The hearing was adjourned until 22 February when Ms Atherton, 49, is due to give evidence. A spokesman for Mr Crossley, who survived an attempt at deselection alleged to be homophobic last year, said that he would not make any comment until the tribunal had finished.