William Hague faced fresh questions about his judgement yesterday as he made his first public appearance since the resignation of his special adviser over "untrue and malicious" rumours of a gay relationship between the two men.
Downing Street insisted yesterday that the Foreign Secretary was backed "100 per cent" by David Cameron, who continued to have full confidence in him. However, doubts were expressed by prominent figures in the Conservative Party over Mr Hague's wisdom in sharing a hotel room with 25-year-old Chris Myers, whom he subsequently put on the public payroll.
Some reports claimed yesterday that Mr Hague may quit his job in exasperation at what he is undergoing. The Foreign Secretary said of Mr Myers: "He is clearly someone who is rather fed up with politics, and who can blame him" – drawing the inference that he too was feeling the same way.
This was denied by allies of Mr Hague's, but the pressure continued with critics charging that the Foreign Secretary's decision to make a public statement about the affair, including intimate details about his married life, served only to turn the affair from a subject of gossip in the "Westminster Village" to international news.
According to Conservative officials, Andy Coulson, the party's director of communications, played a key role in the decision to release the statement on a day when attention was focused on the publication of Tony Blair's autobiography.
The timing of the statement, after weeks of speculation about Mr Hague and Mr Myers, was also queried. One theory was that Mr Hague was advised to address the public in the expectation that the embarrassment factor would be subsumed on the day Tony Blair's autobiography was published.
A number of senior Conservative backbenchers, however, feel that it served only to provide the distraction of a Tory scandal on a day which should have been devoted to the exposing of Labour's bitterness and divisions.
Mr Hague admitted to "occasionally" sharing a room with Mr Myers during the election campaign, adding: "Neither of us would have done so if we had thought that it in any way meant or implied something else. In hindsight I should have given greater consideration to what might have been made of that, but this is in itself no justification for allegations of this kind."
The Conservative peer and former cabinet minister Lord Tebbit accused Mr Hague of being "naive at best, foolish at worst". John Redwood said the statement was "unusual" and had "invited people to comment" on the couple's private life, adding: "Let us hope this is now an end to the matter. Mr Hague himself now seems to understand that it was poor judgement to share a room with an assistant."
A senior backbench Conservative MP stressed: "In this day and age, one has to be very, very careful. We were not so cash-strapped during the campaign that such a risk had to be taken. Then the person concerned gets a job in the private office and, hey, the rumour mills start.
"It will be worthwhile finding out who in the party advised William to make the statement in that form. It was a mistake, and that should be recognised."
Standing at a press conference at the Foreign Office with Germany's Guido Westerwelle – the European Union's only openly gay foreign minister – Mr Hague had an uncomfortable time as he was repeatedly asked about his private life.
The Foreign Secretary said that the statement, containing revelations about his wife's miscarriage, was issued to counter the internet reports. "Yesterday, I made a very personal statement, which was not an easy thing to do," he declared. "I am not going to expand on that today. My wife and I really felt we had had enough of the circulation of untrue allegations, particularly on the internet, and at some point you have to speak out about that and put the record straight."
Asked about Mr Myers's suitability in getting the £30,000-a-year job of special adviser to the Foreign Secretary, when he had mainly acted as Mr Hague's driver during the election campaign, and when there were already two others holding the post, Mr Hague said the matter had already been covered by his statement.
The controversy, he insisted, had not been a distraction from doing his job. "I had not missed a beat at any stage, I have not spent any minutes away from the duties of Foreign Secretary," he stressed.
Christopher Bourne-Arton, the chairman of the Conservative Association in Mr Hague's Richmond constituency, countered: "It was a very brave statement. I am only sorry it was necessary... The tragedy was that it was made necessary by this media feeding frenzy." The Foreign Secretary, he added, was "one of the few politicians who is truly capable of running a major department of state, which is a tremendous asset for any government, and particularly this government."
First up: A chat with the EU's only openly gay foreign minister
The vagaries of a ministerial diary decreed that William Hague’s first public appearance in the current brouhaha should be a joint press conference with the European Union’s only openly gay foreign minister.
Guido Westerwelle, leader of the Free Democrats, the junior partner in Angela Merkel’s coalition government, campaigned during the country’s election with his partner, Michael Mronz, at his side, without enticing hostile or salacious publicity. Indeed Bild, Germany’s biggest selling popular newspaper, and one with a steadfastly conservative stance on social matters, carried a highly favourable front-page profile of Mr Mronz with the gushing headline “His Boyfriend Makes Him Strong!”
The fact that Mr Westerwalle leads a right-wing party coloured the coverage of the right-wing press. However, commentators point out that protecting gay rights had not been a priority for the main political parties in the past with Catholic-dominated Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats focusing on voters from the industrial working-class.
The Nazi-era laws which criminalised homosexuality remained in force in communist East Germany until 1958, while in the free-enterprise West Germany they were not repealed for another 11 years.
It is widely held that it would have been virtually impossible for an openly gay politician to hold a major position in the coalition governments led by Helmut Kohl until 1998. It is the case that Mr Westerwelle, as a rising figure in the Free Democrats, held posts under Kohl, but he did not actually come out until 2004.
Mr Westerwelle’s problems over his partner since he came into office have not been about their sexuality but alleged abuse of patronage. The minister had been accused of using governmental foreign trips to promote the business interests of Mr Mronz, a sports promoter. Renate Kluenast, a senior member of the Green Party, charged: “Westerwalle is damaging the Federal Republic. He is damaging the image of the foreign ministry.”
Mr Westerwelle has angrily denied the charges and Ms Merkel had given him her “100 per cent” backing. Her spokeswoman stated: “The Chancellor is convinced that ministers, and in this case the foreign minister, take their decisions in accordance with the rules.”
There's nothing strange about bedfellows
So what is all the fuss about? For those of us reared on a diet of 1970s TV comedy, there was absolutely nothing strange about Morecambe and Wise sat up in bed together, though Eric always insisted on smoking his pipe to look more "masculine". Men sharing a bed has provided a rich seam of laughs for comics: the Marx Brothers slept four to a cot and Laurel and Hardy regularly bunked together.
Even those of us not blessed with a boarding-school education remember as children talking into the wee small hours with friends after lights out. Was that not the best bit of youthful camping trips after all? If you had a sibling, surely a bunk-bed featured at some point in your childhood? And we should not forget that shared rooms were once the norm for all but the wealthiest families. Is it not the natural instinct of humans to huddle together for warmth and protection once darkness falls?
My father recalls how, in wartime London, he and his brother took turns to warm themselves on a heated brick which they took to their bed instead of a water bottle. I have shared with male friends for months on end – both as a student and while working on a kibbutz – thoroughly enjoying the sense of companionship it brought. In recent years as a journalist, it has on several occasions proved convenient (and cheaper) to double-up in a hotel room while out covering a story. OK, there are simple rules to obey, most of them centred on making smells and parading ostentatiously sans underpants (leave the ruler at home). But we roomies must not be cowed by scurrilous rumour-peddlers. Out and proud, I say. Now turn off the light and stop talking.