Philip Hensher: Gaffes that can be a boon to Cameron

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Peter Hobbins is a member of the Conservative association in Orpington, Kent, and a local councillor. In the past, he was a Conservative Party candidate, failing to win the Rhondda seat in the 2001 General Election. He was struck by the changing nature of aspiring Tory politicians, and put his thoughts in a series of e-mails to fellow Orpington conservatives. Candidates included, he said, "a Mr Dilon Gumraj and a Zerha Zaidi and others ... not one of them has a 'normal' English name ... Maybe I should change my name to something foreign – how does Petrado Indiano Hobbinso sound to you?" Startling stuff, and Mr Hobbins has been suspended from the party forthwith.

It follows hotfoot on the Norfolk rebellion. Sir Jeremy Bagge, a baronet, former High Sheriff of Norfolk and squirearchical pillar of the local Conservative party, objected strongly to the proposed candidate, Elizabeth Truss. She had an episode of adultery in her past, which she had not concealed; Sir Jeremy thought her unsuitable. Central Office had its way, and Truss is now installed as the prospective parliamentary candidate. Sir Jeremy and his followers were seen off with a single, devastating, hilarious phrase: the Turnip Taliban.

David Cameron is in the middle of a campaign to rebrand the Conservatives as open, liberal, generous and concerned with all sectors of society. At first glance, the Hobbinses and the Sir Jeremys might seem like terrible liabilities. But in reality, both episodes have offered a terrific opportunity to the project, and it is not difficult to imagine a wily strategist taking advantage of this.

People like this are, without knowing it, clamouring for the honour of becoming the Derek Hatton of the Conservative Party. For younger readers, I should explain that Derek Hatton was a member of Militant Tendency, and from 1983 deputy Labour leader of Liverpool City Council. A number of policies, notably declaring an illegal "deficit budget", led to his expulsion from the Labour Party in 1986. A memorable speech by Neil Kinnock at the 1985 Labour conference, denouncing the "grotesque spectacle" of the Liverpool council, is widely seen as the turning point in Labour's long rebranding. Hatton was very useful to the founding of New Labour.

Some people have objected that the public depiction of Sir Jeremy Bagge is unfair and a gross misrepresentation of someone who has put in public service. No one, as far as I know, has yet defended Mr Hobbins. But it hardly matters, apart from of course, to those dragged publicly through the mud. The helpfulness of a baronet, objecting – in 2009! – to a woman who slept with a man not her husband can hardly be overstated. In the long term, too, the huge scandal over parliamentary expenses will be seen as a helpful winnowing exercise, separating the blameless from the venal.

The gaffe, far from being something to which all politicians are prone, seems to elevate the moral standing of those who have not committed any such blunder. Or not yet, anyway.

What will they do when all the Turnip Taliban have left for more hospitable political quarters? After all the expulsions and the denunciations, they may find that they rather needed the men in Orpington, whose unacceptable thoughts were so efficiently leaked. The Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, in his poem "Waiting For The Barbarians", put it best: "And some who have just returned from the border say/ there are no barbarians any longer./And now, what's going to happen to us without barbarians?/ They were, those people, a kind of solution."

Why do people love this baffling show?

The comedy series Gavin & Stacey starts its third and final season this week on BBC1. It seems more or less compulsory to say how much you love this tale of two families, a gay uncle, a thin couple and a fat couple, set between Wales and Essex. So I'm keeping my head down in polite company, because I absolutely detest it.

It's one of those things that you simply can't see why people like it. Alison Steadman mugging atrociously, zero chemistry between either of the couples, fat or thin, some character parts offered up as comic stereotypes which you can't understand or recognise. Baffling. And the dialogue seems to be based not on anything overheard or observed, but just a series of quite bad imitations of old Alan Bennett plays. Or possibly the stuff rejected from a Mike Leigh improvisation for being too mannered.

Yes, I know: lots of people like it. Some describe it as warm and sympathetic. Isn't it, rather, terribly patronising, a highly artificial and self-satisfied idea of what real, ordinary people are like? Is it really all that spontaneous, or are its earnest calculations of lovability as transparent to anyone else as they are to me? Watch it next to the wonderful Outnumbered, and see which of them seems to be about human beings.

Oh, well – you can't like everything, and there'll be something better along in a month or two, I dare say.

The case for a census of sexual preference

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is lobbying for a new question in the 2011 census, asking people what their sexual preference is. The Office for National Statistics, which administers the census, opposes it, saying that it would raise issues of privacy, definition, accuracy and so on.

It's rather a good idea. It's true that you would not, in every circumstance, get an accurate answer, and the number of gay or bisexual people would certainly be drastically underestimated. But the question would effectively demonstrate how many people in Britain feel confident in their minority sexuality, which is in itself a valuable fact.

And it must be remembered that the census is not a single exercise; it takes its place in a succession of censuses, every 10 years. How valuable would it be to know, for instance, how many self-declared gay or bisexual people lived in Britain in 1971, 2011, 2041, 2071?

The census at present asks a number of questions about private details, and protects that information stringently. It is wrong to assume that people will probably be unwilling to offer that information. After all, many of those leaping to complain that this is private information seem perfectly willing to let anyone who asks know that they are heterosexual, and the census has always registered married couples. Why should they assume that only heterosexuality is a matter of public record?

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