Andreas Whittam Smith: Lies, damned lies and Simon Hughes

I don't know another area of life where deceit is so prevalent as in politics
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The Independent Online

I read with astonishment the article Simon Hughes wrote in this newspaper on Saturday. Two weeks earlier, this candidate for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats, had denied that he was gay. The Independent had asked him whether he was. He replied: "No, I am not." Yet 10 days later, he told The Sun: "I am perfectly willing to say that I have had both homosexual and heterosexual relationships in the past."

Then, lo and behold, on Saturday he told Independent readers that when he had said to this newspaper that he was not gay, he was not intending to mislead. He went on: "What I said wasn't morally wrong, it was not factually wrong." Before we dismiss Mr Hughes as delusional, it is worth seeing how he convinces himself there is nothing blameworthy in his "No. I'm not/Yes, I am" routine.

He did not, he says, have a carefully crafted sentence in his mind about his private life when he met The Independent. He blurted something out on the spur of the moment. I find this surprising. Mr Hughes is embarking on the biggest adventure of his life, to seek the leadership of his party, with good prospects of success, and he asks us to believe that he hasn't worked out how to answer the question he knows he is bound to be asked. Frankly I would have preferred a carefully crafted sentence. Try this one - "There is nothing in my past that would disqualify me from leading the Liberal Democrat party."

As well as putting forward his excuse of not being prepared, Mr Hughes attempts to place his confirmation of what he had previously denied into a setting designed to show him in a good light. He has devised a series of narratives. One is the sacrifice scenario. In this tale, Mr Hughes gave false answers for the sake of others who find themselves in the same position. Thus he told The Sun that he was not the only MP at Westminster who is secretly gay. "It's not just me. There are lots of people who have tried to keep their lives private. I wasn't just doing it for me but for the many others who are in the same boat... I was trying to make sure that even in the circumstances of potentially standing as leader of the party - or for high office - that private life was private."

From this account, Mr Hughes slips easily into a second riff. In this, he is fighting prejudice and discrimination against gays. "It would be very sad," he remarked in the Sun interview, "if people who have always been single or who are homosexual felt that their sexuality prevented them from holding high office." Or, as Mr Hughes wrote on Saturday, "We have really got to have a society where people don't presume things or label us as this sort of MP or that, whether it's gay or bisexual."

If these explanations don't quite work - after all, Chris Smith MP was open about his homosexuality and became a cabinet minister - then there is another to hand. This plot line is that Mr Hughes is defending everyone's right to privacy. Thus he wrote on Saturday that it is "absolutely proper for people to protect their their private life, not just for themselves but for their families, friends and colleagues. People need the space to live their lives." From this principle, Mr Hughes drew the remarkable conclusion that "it is not dishonest to protect your privacy".

Finally in his search for exoneration, Mr Hughes hit on the desperate ploy of comparing himself with Churchill and Lloyd George. On Friday, he said he doubted whether Churchill or Lloyd George would have survived in modern times with their private predilections, namely Churchill's drinking and Lloyd George's womanising. "Whether either one would have withstood the 2006 sort of news coverage that it's been my lot to face over the past 48 hours, I shudder to think."

Of course, none of this will do. Mr Hughes was caught out in a lie direct. The nearest he has come to admitting his fault was to remark that perhaps he had been "overly defensive over questions about my sexuality". Frankly, I am tired of discovering how often politicians tell lies and that they don't really think that it is wrong to do so. I don't know another area of life where deceit is so prevalent. In the fields in which I have worked, such as Fleet Street and the City, fewer fibs are told than they are in Westminster.

Unfortunately, the proximity of politics to the power of the state makes plausible the dangerous notion that the end justifies the means. Mr Hughes evidently believes this. Hence his idea that it isn't morally wrong to lie to protect one's privacy. What else, if he attained power, would he think justified deceit? Experience suggests the list would be long. But now that we have learnt just in time that Mr Hughes is a shameless liar, I profoundly hope that he will fail in his attempt to lead the Liberal Democrats.