If ever there was a sign of the panic jangling the nerve of Liberal Democrat MPs, it was the anxious comings and goings at the party whips' office at Westminster last week.
So rattled was the party by the revelation that one leadership contender was a user of male prostitutes and that another had lied about gay relationships, that the word went out that any MP with skeletons in their cupboard should troop along to the Chief Whip, Andrew Stunell, and confess all.
It was not a call that went unanswered. By last Thursday, as they headed back to their constituencies braced for further late-night calls from scandal-seeking red-top journalists, several MPs had contacted Mr Stunell.
One source said: "Loads of people have been to see the Chief Whip ... they have been talking about things that concern them, whether it is a child with a drugs problem, or money or marital problems, or something like that."
Whether any of these secrets becomes public remains to be seen, but in the MPs' present febrile state of mind almost nothing would surprise them. This is not because they have anything more lurid to hide than other party representatives, but because they are now, in the field sport that is mass-market political coverage, a quarry whose scent of fear has been truly marked.
Having seen Charles Kennedy brought down by a long-rumoured drink problem, Mark Oaten exposed and Simon Hughes severely embarrassed, Fleet Street's collective nostrils are excitedly truffling for further revelations. The word is that Rupert Murdoch, owner of the two papers responsible for the Oaten and Hughes stories, and no admirer of the Lib Dems, would not be displeased with further exposés.
The in-laws of Chris Huhne, the happily married leadership contender, complained they had been getting calls from tabloid journalists. Even Sir Menzies Campbell's personal life and his time as an Olympic sprinter were being scrutinised.
"People are feeling frazzled," said one veteran Liberal Democrat MP. "The Charles confession has opened the floodgates on nastiness. I don't think anyone thought it would be open season on any Lib Dem MP. The party is at the centre of a feeding frenzy. Anyone who so much as burps in the wrong place is fair game."
But huddling in twos and threes over their coffees in the atrium of Portcullis House, Liberal Democrat MPs were more forthcoming. "Have they got anything on me?" asked one anxious married frontbencher. "We've all got skeletons in our closet."
An MP, who has not spoken publicly about his sexuality, looked ashen. Colleagues reassured him that any revelation about his gay private life, about which he was open with friends, would be unjustifiable.
The panic was even spreading to their constituencies. A single male MP spotted a car waiting outside his house for hours. Since he lives in an isolated rural spot, it could only mean one thing: the tabloids were out digging for dirt. "I checked my bins to see if they had gone through them, but they don't seem to have," he said.
But among some MPs there was indignation at Mr Hughes's outing in The Sun. One said: "It's disgraceful the way journalists are behaving. People's private life is people's private life. Where are all these questions going to stop?" They were also angry that the justification for outing Mr Hughes was that he had lied about his sexuality. The Sun's associate editor, Trevor Kavanagh, wrote in a front-page story that Mr Hughes had "apologised for twice denying he is homosexual". He had told The Independent and The Daily Telegraph in answer to questions that he was not.
But Mr Hughes's friends were adamant that his replies were a muddled response, not a deliberate attempt to deceive. Mr Hughes made clear in The Sun interview that he had had "both homosexual and heterosexual relationships". Friends said the MP was not gay but bisexual. Technically, he was telling the truth. As an evangelical Christian, they say, he may have had conflict with his religious beliefs and was struggling with his sexuality. Others believe he kept it quiet because he had not told his elderly mother.
Alarm bells began to ring in the Hughes camp last Wednesday. Mr Kavanagh called the MP's office to say The Sun was about to run a story on Mr Hughes's private life. It was agreed that Mr Hughes would do an interview in which he would speak publicly, for the first time, about being gay. He did so, telling Mr Kavanagh that he had had relationships with women and men.
It was the revelation that The Sun had learnt he had phoned a gay chat service - Man Talk - that finally persuaded Mr Hughes.
The Sun's story ran under a banner headline saying "I'm gay too". Below that it said: "I've had many gay lovers." Mr Hughes's staff complained. They said the Liberal Democrat leadership contender had not had "many" gay lovers. The word "many" (along with the strap headline "A second limp-Dem confesses") was removed in later editions.
If only the party could have had as much success in negotiating all of the past month's coverage.Reuse content