Michael Portillo's sexual past is colourful - but it's his own affair

The image is irresistible: the future Tory leader in a canary twinset, cavorting on Midsummer Common

David Aaronovitch
Friday 10 September 1999 00:02
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IN WHAT exotic colours present knowledge allows us to repaint the past! In his 1995 biography entitled Michael Portillo: The Future of the Right, Michael Gove referred to the Cambridge days of his subject in a puzzling manner. Students at Portillo's Cambridge college, Peterhouse, affected (according to a contemporary), "a style - camp in some, decidedly homosexual in others". Gove further reveals that: "Fellows and undergraduates were given girls' names; parties were organised in meadows a little out of town, and cross-dressing was encouraged." The image is irresistible: the once and future leader of the Conservative Party in a canary twinset, cavorting across Midsummer Common, accompanied by an elderly don called Mary.

Actually I thought nothing of this at the time. Perhaps this is because Gove went on to write that: "Michael Portillo's looks and bearing brought him to the attention of some of the more outre members of college. Handsome and self-possessed, he was the object of attention; but, while he appreciated aspects of the atmosphere, he was emphatically one of the more fastidious members of college." I took this to mean that there was a lot of it about, but that Mike stood aloof. In retrospect I can see that this was really Malvolio's law applied to sexuality: some are born homosexual, some achieve homosexuality, and some have homosexuality thrust upon them.

Myself, I don't think that the "tolerance" of the Kensington and Chelsea Conservatives is the interesting issue here. I cannot believe that even the party of Ann Widdecombe is so suicidal that it would turn away one of its most charismatic, talented and attractive members because of his sexual inclinations. No, the only important question - the one that permits me to write on this subject at all - is whether Mr Portillo is a hypocrite. Is he to be condemned because he - as a Defence Secretary with a gay past - allowed the expulsion of gay people from the Armed Forces? And should he be pilloried over his recent opposition to the reduction of the male homosexual age of consent to 16, when he himself probably had gay sex under the then limit of 21?

Peter Tatchell, as ever, is absolutely clear on the answer. "Michael Portillo," he argues, "is widely despised within the lesbian and gay community because he has repeatedly voted against gay equality". Not having sufficient time to canvass the views of my lesbian friends on this subject, I did manage to get through to a gay pal on his mobile on an InterCity train. What were his feelings towards Mr Portillo? He would like, he responded, to tie him to a gym horse dressed only in a leather thong, to tease him mercilessly and then finally to... But at this point the train entered a tunnel.

Interestingly, Mr Portillo has himself thought it necessary to enter two pleas of mitigation, though none is technically required. Speaking to journalists on Wednesday night he said that his activities were, "very mild, and a very long time ago." I do not know this, but I suspect that by "mild" homosexuality Mike is signalling that there was no sodomy. As we recall from the Lords debate on the age of consent, many older Tories are obsessed by buggery. So this first defence is distantly related to the Clinton plea of "I smoked, but I didn't inhale."

And the second is, of course, the Dubya defence of repented youth, currently in use by Texas governor George W Bush (presidential frontrunner and erstwhile bemused host to William Hague) to deflect unwelcome questions about past cocaine abuse. "When I was young and irresponsible," Bush repeats endlessly, "I was really young and irresponsible." And in the post-Monica era many Americans appear to be quite satisfied with that.

My argument is that Portillo is probably not a hypocrite, and that, therefore, his sexual past (or present) is no one's business but his own and whoever he chooses to share it with.

Surely it's quite possible to believe that you, as a 20-year-old student, should be able to have sex with whomever you choose, and yet be chary about giving a similar freedom to 16 year olds and their would-be lovers. Possible - but in my opinion utterly wrong. It must be conceivable also for a gay person to buy the argument that the military simply works better without overt homosexuality in the ranks. Possible - but yet again, in my opinion, wrong. When I was a young Communist I knew a gay Stalinist who averred that Russian anti-gay laws were justified. His homosexuality was, he was sure, a disease of late capitalist society, and would eventually be magicked away in the bracing air of post-revolutionary Socialism. He wasn't a hypocrite, just a really messed-up kid. Neither he nor Mr P. were really saying that what is OK for me is wrong for you.

But Bush, I think, is a different matter. In Texas he presides over a penal code that savagely punishes traffickers in drugs like cocaine, and that often imprisons those who merely possess. It is an article of faith within his party that suppression is the way to deal with drug-taking. Bush, anxious always to be tough on crime, makes no allowance for "misspent youth" in others. "If we are going to save a generation of young people," he wrote recently, "our children must know they will face bad consequences for criminal behaviour. Sadly, too many youths are not getting that message. Our juvenile justice system must say to our children: We love you, but we are going to hold you accountable for your actions." But about his own possible misdemeanors he argues that, "what I did as a youth is irrelevant to this campaign. What is relevant is, have you grown up, and I have."

This is impossible. Does Bush believe, then, that if he committed felonies when in his late 20s, he should now be punished for them? One ingenious anti-Prohibition website in America has Dubya's imagined letter from the prison where he has had himself incarcerated, so as to set an example to the nation's youth. But George W is not in jail, so when exactly did he manage to transcend his former crimes - to outgrow them? Or is he really saying that the son of a politician millionaire can be trusted to redeem himself from a (rather late) youth spent in substance abuse, but that the general run of American teenagers cannot?

Mr Portillo is aware of the pitfalls of taking the line of the American moral right. Insufferable in victory, fabulous in defeat, he warned his colleagues in 1997 of the need to eschew the urge to sew the Scarlet Letter onto too many bodices. But now William Hague and Ann Widdecombe (neither of whom cross-dressed at college, I trow), plan automatic life sentences for those who sell LSD or cocaine to the under 18s more than twice. So forget teenage Tory homosexuals, we should all be on the hunt for teenage Tory drug sellers. Or perhaps we could just have a more sensible argument about drugs.

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