Michael Brown: Progress is not caring if a Tory leader is gay

We fought for equal rights so that religion, sex and sexuality would ultimately be irrelevant
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Suddenly the top Tories are falling over themselves to say how much they have changed, but I am afraid they are in danger of fighting yesterday's battles and are likely to leave the rest of us thoroughly bored.

I know I should be leaping with excitement at the fact that an openly gay leadership candidate, Alan Duncan, feels that it will be an asset to his candidacy that, if elected, he would be the first gay party leader. Of course, the Tory party has previously appeared to have been in the vanguard of social change by, for example, the election of, Disraeli, its first Jewish leader, and the election of Margaret Thatcher, its first woman leader.

To be fair, it was actually the Today programme interviewer who, yesterday morning, raised the question. He seemed more excited than Mr Duncan about his sexual orientation when he asked how the Tory party would react to the fact (ignoring the rumours about William Pitt) that Mr Duncan would be the first gay candidate to lead a major political party.

Mr Duncan replied that he did not think anyone would bat an eyelid. Actually I am not quite so sure about that. Interestingly gay candidates did not do quite as well as I had expected in the recent general election.

Tony Page lost Labour's Reading East seat, and Iain Dale and Nicholas Boles failed in Norfolk North and Hove for the Tories. We shall never know why, but I suspect that sexual preference might still be an issue for some voters at the margin.

But in a sense all of this misses the point. I really don't care about Mr Duncan's religion, sex or sexuality. Those of us who fought for legislation on equality (when it was uncomfortable for us to do so, and when the laws of the land were discriminatory) did so in order that these issues would ultimately be deemed irrelevant when assessing the ability of candidates to do any kind of occupation - including lead the Conservative Party.

The reason so many of us wanted Margaret Thatcher to become leader 30 years ago had nothing to do with the fact that she might become the first woman Prime Minister but everything to do with the thought that only she would break the post-war collective, socialist consensus that the Tory party had previously accepted. Sure, her femininity may have had a vague bearing on her well-established character of toughness and determination, but it was not because of being a woman that she won votes - either in the leadership election of 1975 or the general election in 1979. Although there were a few voters - certainly in Scunthorpe where I stood - for whom a woman prime minister was an issue.

All this "let's get a gay and let's get a black to show we are cool chavs" rubbish is beginning to jar. Mr Duncan observes that his being gay would help to demonstrate, if he were to become party leader, that the Tory party has "changed". Well, for that matter and on this basis, if David Davis gets elected, he would be able to play the same daft game.

Mr Davis would be the first "illegitimate" leader of the Tory party - the son of a single mother, brought up on a council estate and whose father abandoned him at birth. Are we really going to boil the coming Tory leadership contest down to a battle between gays and single mothers?

The way things are going there are 11 potential runners for this forthcoming race: Michael Ancram, David Cameron, Kenneth Clarke, David Davis, Alan Duncan, Liam Fox (about to get married!), Damien Green, John Redwood (separated!), Sir Malcolm Rifkind, David Willetts and Tim Yeo. Under Mr Howard's daft new rules, it will require 20 different MPs to nominate publicly each of these candidates. That will require 220 Tory MPs just to fill in the nomination papers - there are only 197 in total to cast the actual votes. It will be this rule that gets Mr Duncan in the end. He will not be able to find 20 MPs willing to sign up publicly for him.

But where were all of these Tory players in the dark days of Back to Basics and Clause 28, when it was cool and fashionable to bash the gays? Ironically, it was the supposedly "right-wing" David Davis - who maneouvred most to get me into government, while many others in my list above would snigger at me behind my back - who passed my own test of character. I find all the current tosh about modernising a leftover from the failed Portillo palaver of four years ago.

Who is the candidate who will successfully reduce the size of the state - predicted to be 44 per cent of gross national product - by the next election? That should be the first and last test of who should lead the Conservative Party into the next election.