Matthew Norman: Will there be a party left to lead?

I suppose you have to admire Simon Hughes for finding space on the coffin for his nail
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The Independent Online

The important question now about the Liberal Democrat leadership is not whether the new man will lead the party to the left, but whether he will have a party left to lead. At such a frantic rate are the Lib Dems self-destructing that, were they a public company, the only option would be to call in the Official Receiver and have done with it. Certainly many who voted for them in recent elections must have done with them. I know I have.

Following the yucky sanctimony of Charles Kennedy's resignation speech (for the good of the party, indeed), and the dementia of Mark Oaten (inviting the TV cameras in to record a family meal forsooth), I suppose you have to admire Simon Hughes for finding space on the coffin for his nail.

That no one really cares about Mr Hughes's sexual taste should be too obvious to state. Most of us take a mild, prurient interest in such matters, but all the psephological evidence insists that voters couldn't give a toss. In 1997, a Tory family-values madman called Dr Adrian Rogers ran a spectacularly hateful campaign against Ben Bradshaw in Exeter. Devon is hardly the least reactionary of counties, but Mr Bradshaw was duly returned for Labour on a pretty uniform swing.

The mass acceptance of people's sexual preferences ought to be too obvious to state, then, but apparently it isn't if Mr Hughes so distrusts the electorate to judge candidates on other criteria. Nothing else explains his whopper when asked if he was gay during his recent interview with this newspaper.

If he had a wife and a pair of daughters, like Mr Oaten, one might even sympathise. With no one and nothing to protect but himself and his career, so brazen a lie verges on homophobia by implicitly presenting homosexuality as something shameful even to those decent, tolerant folk who are paid-up members of his party.

Speaking of homophobia brings us to the single most compelling reason why Mr Hughes should give up politics immediately, do the knowledge, and spend the rest of his working life picking up fares in that yellow London taxi of his, thereby offering people the chance to tell their friends: "I had that Simon Hughes in the front of my cab."

In the 1983 Bermondsey by-election, Peter Tatchell suffered modern electoral history's most vile and sustained abuse. Mr Hughes's involvement in that, long suspected, is now confirmed by the man himself. He apologised for it again yesterday, as obliquely as he could, on Simon Mayo's Radio 5 Live show. In the same interview, he sought to explain his own coyness by pointing out that when he entered public life in 1980, it was a very different world. What changed in those three years to convince him Mr Tatchell deserved to have his sexuality exploited for electoral gain he didn't mention.

Mr Tatchell has accepted this apology with astounding good grace. But 22 years on seems a little late to make reparations for an act of cowardice and hypocrisy which - regardless of how far it contributed to the ruination of a brave and honest man - is quite grotesque enough in itself. If George Galloway's fitness to represent nearby Bethnal Green and Bow is questioned because of his feline adventure, you wonder why the people of Bermondsey should tolerate an MP whose catty smearing of a rival, over a sexual orientation he falsely denied himself, won him the seat in the first place. Far from promising to stand down at the next election like poor old George, however, Mr Hughes has expressed no intention of withdrawing even from the leadership contest at the time of writing. (This thing moves so quickly that you have to use that qualification; by the time you read this, Chris Huhne may have spoken to the Mirror about his friendship with a horse, and Ming Campbell been exposed in the Mail as a senior figure in the Moonies.)

Needless to say, he seeks to portray this issue as one not of major dishonesty but minor misjudgement, and in doing so compounds the original lie. He is sorry, he says, "if I misled people" (you have to love that if), and hints that he was driven from the closet by a surge of courage, rather than The Sun confronting him with evidence of calls to a gay chat-line. But for that, in other words, Mr Hughes would still be answering enquiries with the sort of replies that might, if read the wrong way by the feeble-minded, possibly be construed as misleading. "I've shagged loads of women, I have," for example, "and no, I'm not gay."

For all his plausible manner (and he sounded quite impressive on the radio yesterday; wounded yet unbowed), Mr Hughes has long struck me as a politician who makes a noxious cocktail by mixing self-serving dishonesty with unshackled ambition. His milk-of-human-kindness expressions of loyalty to Mr Kennedy were certainly laced with purest strychnine. It took a ruthless operator, when rumours of the imminent demise surfaced last autumn, to go on telly and announce, unbidden, that he'd been to see Charlie to promise not to challenge for the leadership.

If ever an act was designed to aggravate a nascent crisis by fleshing out a piece of juicy gossip, while presenting the schemer as a man of honour, this was it. We all know ambitious politicians play such power games, and through wrinkled nostrils we accept it. But the memory of that sneakiness does little to persuade me that he has any genuine regret for his recent lies or his maltreatment of Mr Tatchell in 1983.

Two years later, Simon Hughes won The Spectator magazine's award for Member To Watch in 1985. It's tempting to wonder why he was so poor at keeping an eye on his own member that he couldn't remember what turned it on, but perhaps this isn't the time for smutty, sub-Carry On punning. Then again, perhaps it is. This leadership campaign has become such high camp farce that at PMQs each Wednesday I find myself checking the Lib Dem benches for that other fabled closet queen, Kenneth Williams.

And still there is more than a month to go - not long enough for Chris Huhne to become a household name in his mother's household, and too long for Ming Campbell, who offers only benign dither when what they need from him (ooh Matron) is the smack of firm government. Meanwhile Simon Hughes limps on badly damaged but clinically alive (no Liberal can be declared dead until the Charles Hawtrey lookalike Lembit Opik comes out for him).

"My job is to lead a united and motivated party in the mainstream of British politics to greater success," Mr Hughes declares on the official website. "It is to encourage and enthuse the British public to join us. I believe we can do it. I am ready to lead." If there are enough Lib Dem lemmings ready to follow, the obituarists will be busy in early March.