Sex is your business; your lies are mine

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The Independent Online
AS SOMEONE who knew and greatly liked Stephen Milligan, I share the view that his death was a sad, personal event which tells us nothing at all about Conservative politics. But the subsequent coverage underlines something that has been increasingly clear: we are a nation of moralising peeping-toms, utterly confused about what sexual morality means, or ought to mean, for public life.

So far, the press has set the agenda on every resignation. Now, the parliamentary vote on lowering the age of homosexual consent has had the rumour-mill spinning, red hot with glee. No doubt John Major would rather discuss interest rates, but he has a duty to spell out his own views about the private behaviour of ministers - what he thinks matters, and what doesn't. He may blame others for distorting his 'back to basics' theme. But, wittingly or not, he started something which has badly damaged his party. Now he must get it back under control - and fast.

Here, for what it's worth, is the speaking-note that I would draft if I was working in the No 10 Policy Unit.

'During the winter there has been a series of unhappy, sometimes tragic, events which have spotlighted the private lives of Members of Parliament, many of them ministers in my government. Journalists have, in my view maliciously, used 'back to basics' as an excuse to damage the Government with titillating, unconnected stories. But we live in the world, not above it, and I want to try to clear a few things up.

'Let me deal first with adultery. Marital breakdown, which is an increasing problem in Britain, is a special danger for MPs, working very long hours and often living away from their families. Ministers whose marriages break down have my sympathy, not my blame. In the ordinary way, I would certainly not expect them to resign. But there is an important exception.

'Where it is clear that a minister has been lying to his or her partner over a long period of time, and perhaps to others, then the issue is no longer marital breakdown, but deceit. Voters are, God knows, cynical enough about MPs already. It may be unfair to suggest that a man who lies to his wife cannot be trusted to tell the truth to anyone else. But that is how ordinary voters will perceive it. So I will expect anyone caught out in such a situation to resign. Not every marriage works, but no minister is obliged to have a mistress or lie to loved ones.

''Let me turn next to the question of unmarried ministers. I am aware that a forthcoming parliamentary vote is being used as the excuse for a vicious witch-hunt by sections of the press, working in a curious alliance with self-proclaimed Conservative moralists, publicity-seeking footballers and gay extremists. For a mixture of motives, mostly bad, they are threatening to name homosexual MPs.

'So let me make it clear that I would be amazed if some members of the Government weren't gay. Or even engaged in what might be called unusual practices. Nor, in principle, do I care. Human sexuality is a mysterious business, and it is not, thank goodness, my business. What single ministers get up to in their own bedrooms is their own affair, so long as it hurts no one else and doesn't keep them away from government work. If there are any ministers who are currently frightened of having their sexual history dragged through the press, let me reassure them of my own uninterest.

'Are there any exceptions? There are: but, as with adultery, I am concerned not with bedroom antics, only with public character failings which would bring the Government into contempt.

'The Conservative Party is a conservative party, too. So gay MPs will probably not have confessed their sexuality to their local workers. If they have merely avoided the issue, fine. But if they have lied to loyal members of the party, or indeed to anyone else, they have a problem. Given the climate of hostility to homosexuals, I might regard such a lie as less serious than, say, an adulterer's lies to his wife. But if your local party and voters feel betrayed, then you will have to do your own explaining - even to resign. Ultimately, we are all responsible for what we say.

'The second exception is where a minister has been acting in a hypocritical manner, preaching one thing in public and doing another in private. A clear-cut case would be that of a gay MP who wanted homosexuality to be outlawed. Most cases will not be so easy: it is possible to be homosexual and also to believe genuinely that the age of consent should not be lowered to 16. But any minister who has indulged in aggressive public moralising about sexual matters and who has behaved differently in the bedroom is guilty of double standards. However much I may deplore the leering thuggery of the tabloid press, such blatant hypocrisy undermines the standing of the Government, and rightly so. A resignation would have to follow.

'One final point. We must always bear in mind what, with a twinge of regret, I call the Mellor principle: morals aside, if your private behaviour has made you appear ridiculous, you have a duty to your colleagues to go.

'Some Conservatives will disagree with where I have drawn these lines. Some may find them illiberal, others will be shocked. But I have tried to distinguish in principle between what is of legitimate concern to voters and party members, and what is really the business of the dirty mackintosh brigade. We all like a gossip, but we need to separate our prurience from our indignation. Having made these principles as clear as I can, I will act on them in future. This may lead to some rough justice. But, as Mr Alan Watkins is occasionally wont to remind us, politics is a rough old trade.'