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Why Mandy won't come out to play

AT AN editorial conference here on Tuesday morning, a member of staff looked askance at that day's Oliver James column on Peter Mandelson and wondered why James had outed Mandelson as a homosexual. Came the reply: Oliver James hadn't. That dirty deed was committed some time ago by the News of the World, for obvious, odious reasons.

And, no, James wasn't slyly exploiting tabloid affronts to privacy and decency. He has points to make. Unlike Bryan Gould's autobiography, which reviled Mandelson as "queeny", giving the Sun the chance to run "Gould `Outs' Mandelson" in hypocritical, tut-tut tones. And, as a matter of record, Gay Times often mentions Mandelson's sexuality and has not once been rebuked by the man himself, or his office. Indeed, relations have always been very cordial, even up to the last election, when Gay Times' request for an in-depth interview was very cordially rejected.

Still, one realises why the staff member raised the question - the Minister Without Portfolio's homosexuality exists in a limbo between secret, open secret and historical amnesia: everyone is apparently aware of it without being quite certain how - and also why Peter Mandelson declined to be interviewed by Gay Times. Mandelson clearly doesn't want his sexuality to be anything other than his own business. He does not wish it to be a dreary "issue", a punctured political football, a broken stick to beat himself or the Party or the Blessed Tony with. It might be... awkward.

New Labour has been at some pains to present itself as "gay-friendly", and no matter how currently cosy the Government's arranged marriage with the Mail, Times etc, in the right-wing press, tradition and prejudice (much the same thing) forever translate the liberal sentimentality of gay-friendly into the sinister suggestion of Gay Mafia.

The fact that New Labour's "gay-friendliness" has extended to fighting against gays in the military and equal partnership rights in the European Courts would seem to dismiss such a paranoid Polaroid of Mandelson and Co's baleful influence, but facts, naturally, don't come into it. Knowing this, why add to your own burdens or allow unnecessary obstacles to be placed in the path of possible political progress for gay men and women? All round, best to maintain a dignified silence. Which is, after all, a matter of choice.

Except Peter Mandelson has no choice. Whatever the personal and/or professional motives for keeping Mum (the good people of his Hartlepool constituency? the still-burning embers of Labour's butch, blue-collar boorishness? the Prime Minister? sheer boredom?) his sexuality is... Here we encounter difficulties - semantic and otherwise. While Mandelson's homosexuality is on record, it is treated as shadowy, almost... ashamed.

In a dumb way, this is very clever. Silence, dignified or fearful, can be employed against you. Mandelson is nicknamed Mandy and must ignore the sniggering moniker: surely lack of response means he is hiding something? Actually, Mandelson might simply think his day has better uses than rising to stinking bait.

This is, however, immaterial. The fish in the barrel's refusal to bite need not interfere with easy sport. Watch. If I type "Mandelson and gay" into this newspaper's library database, 111 stories appear, all hints, nudges and dull, dull, dull innuendo. Richard Littlejohn doing cracks about friends of Dorothy and friends of Mandy not being mutually exclusive. (You couldn't make it up. Though Littlejohn does.)

A cartoon in the Standard showing Mandelson on a sunny beach, surrounded by silly Muscle Marys and moustachioed clones. Ken Livingstone, stalwart defender of gay rights, vying with Mandelson for a place on the NEC, babbling in the Guardian about his rival's prowess as a disco bunny.

This is, of course, why everyone is apparently aware of Peter Mandelson's homosexuality without being quite certain how. Which is confusing, as well as putrid, because, as previously noted, Mandelson has already been "outed".

Would making a clean breast of it - the language of harassment is contagious - kill the smirks? No. If Mandelson were to lose the test of wills and admit - or confess, as Littlejohn would doubtlessly phrase it - then he would at some future point be accused of "flaunting it". Catch 22. No- win situation. Cowards' methods of punishment are multifarious, as any gay man thought to have power can tell you.

Perhaps Mandelson should have a chat with Chris Smith, who lives the very opposite of his own predicament. Smith's open homosexuality is now almost never mentioned. No fun there. Instead, the utter unreasonableness of attacks on his "competence" grow. Dub it over-compensation and skim Richard Ingrams in the Observer: enraged and obsessed or what? Moral: in or out, some will always shake you all about.

Though not for much longer. The times are anti-blood sports. Smith's foes have had to drop the fag-baiting. Mandelson's queer situation may signal a last hoorah; no wonder name-calling bullies are making the cat- and-mouse most of it. Wouldn't it be funny if a final, mad, full-frontal attack finally gained Peter Mandelson public empathy? Wouldn't it be amazing if his enemies took note of this column in a manner they have revealingly failed to do with Oliver James' and put Peter Mandelson - and us erstwhile, inadvertent collaborators - out of their misery?

Couldn't they learn to hate Mandelson for who he is and not for what he does in bed? Or are they far too busy gang-banging George Michael to pay due attention?

From next week, John Lyttle's column can be found in the Independent's second section, The Eye, on Thursdays