Peter Mandelson actually saw himself being outed on Newsnight on the evening of 27 October. He was reclining on his bed at Northumberland Place, going through a red box with the television set on, as Matthew Parris, The Times sketch writer, ex-MP and openly gay, was interviewed by Jeremy Paxman about the personal crisis that had caused Ron Davies to resign as Welsh Secretary that very day. Matthew Parris told Paxman: "There are at least two gay members of the Cabinet." Paxman, appearing to search his memory for whom Parris might mean, asked: "Are there two gay members of the Cabinet?" Parris replied: "Well, Chris Smith is openly gay and I think Peter Mandelson is certainly gay." At which point Paxman, looking a touch flustered, said: "I think we will just move on from there. I'm not quite sure where he is on that."
Remarkably, Mandelson was to say later that at first he simply returned to his box and carried on working. This had happened several times before, after all. But by the time Benjamin Wegg-Prosser arrived 20 minutes later from a nearby restaurant, his pager was filling up with messages from the newsdesks of every national newspaper. It was an old story, but Mandelson was now a cabinet minister, and the man doing the outing was famous in his own right.
Someone less single-mindedly determined to protect his privacy might have given up at that point. It was widely known in Hartlepool, as well as throughout the Westminster village, that Mandelson was gay. Indeed, he had never made any attempt to conceal it from those who knew him. Would it not be a relief to let the tidal wave of publicity roll over him? This was, after all, the Nineties, not the Fifties. But that was not how Mandelson saw it. At around 10am Wegg-Prosser took the first of many calls from a senior BBC executive, Richard Clemmow. Could he speak to Mandelson? No, he couldn't. Well, said Clemmow, please pass on to Peter that Paxman was very upset about what had happened and would shortly be biking round a letter of apology. In fact, Paxman delivered the letter himself, making a detour on his way to work at BBC Television Centre to drop it off at Northumberland Place.
Dear Peter, (the letter read),
I'm sorry that Matthew Parris mentioned your name on `Newsnight' last night. In the heat of the moment, he rather caught me out, and I tried to brush over things as soon as possible afterwards.
I fully respect - and share - your view that your private life is your own affair. I am sorry if I have been the cause of your embarrassment.
With kind regards,
This fairly unequivocal apology did little to mollify Mandelson. For one thing, he believed, rightly or wrongly, that Paxman - a friend, if not a close one - knew he was gay and who he had been going out with. In any case, before he had even returned home to read the letter Mandelson had already gone straight to the top. He telephoned Sir Christopher Bland, the chairman of the BBC governors, and suggested that he acquaint himself with the facts.
He also - contrary to subsequent denials - telephoned Birt, also to protest. That evening, having returned home and read Paxman's letter, he wrote a reply, unforgiving even by the standard of scores of similar letters he had sent to journalists over the years.
Thank you for your letter, which frankly I found perfunctory considering what you did to my night and day, with help from Matthew. Journalists at my door, until the early hours, photographers in the garden, and chasing me all day.
If you were not looking for a cheap angle for your interview, you behaved very unprofessionally. Anyone could see where Matthew was going in his remarks. You had more than one chance to stop him and head him off, you egged him on until his remarks became indefensible. If I didn't know better, I would think it was all accidental. But I know how thoroughly `Newsnight' thinks about its output and interviews, and I know what licence it gives itself in traducing and demonising its pet hates. I have been one of these for too long.
I do not want a correspondence, so please do not bother to reply.
At this point, Paxman, feeling that Mandelson's hint about a Newsnight witch hunt was out of order, wrote back a robust but amiable "come off it" sort of letter to tell him so. Paxman's bosses, however, were more respectful. By this time, the Labour MP Diane Abbott, an old sparring partner of Mandelson's, referred at some length to Mandelson's homosexuality on Question Time. Sir Christopher, writing to Mandelson the following morning, was contrition itself:
Thank you for your telephone call on Wednesday, arising from the previous night's edition of `Newsnight'. I have now looked into the matter. It was clearly inappropriate for a studio guest to have taken the opportunity to comment on your private life. I can assure you that neither the programme nor Jeremy Paxman intended this to happen and we very much regret that it did. The fact that a contributor to `Question Time' repeated the allegation last night compounds our error. I can only apologise sincerely on behalf of the BBC both for the original mistake and for the widespread press coverage that has resulted.
After an instant poll of 100 constituents, the Hartlepool Mail, under a headline that screamed: WHO CARES IF OUR MP IS GAY?, reported that 94 had decided that it didn't matter. But the national newspapers were not going to be put off. The Sunday Express was on the track of Reinaldo Avila da Silva, as Mandelson had learnt in a telephone call from his friend in Tokyo. Avila had been in a steady relationship with Mandelson, frequently staying at Northumberland Place, from March until he went to Tokyo to study Japanese in the autumn. The Sunday Express did not know this. But they knew enough to consider it worthwhile sending the reporter John Chapman - by coincidence the very same journalist who had "exposed" Mandelson's relationship with Peter Ashby 11years earlier, in the middle of the 1987 election - to Tokyo to talk to him.
What happened next was disputed. Amanda Platell, now director of communications at Conservative Central Office, was moved from the editorship of the paper in January. A senior Express executive vehemently denied that Mandelson had made any request for her sacking, and is adamant that Platell had anyway been moved because the Sunday Express had failed to fulfil management hopes for the newspaper. It was true that her case was not helped when an internal investigation following the publication of the story established that the pictures of the Brazilian had been taken against his will. Moreover, the internal enquiry found that the shots of Avila with his hand in front of his face had all been expunged from the paper's computer system. But there is no evidence to support the common assumption that Platell's head was somehow handed to Mandelson on a platter - well after he had resigned.
The whole saga nevertheless raised a puzzling question. Why was Mandelson quite so determined not to acknowledge what had by now become public property, from Hartlepool to New York? There was no doubt an element of cussed pride about it. He saw no reason why his private life should become public property, even though by not declaring his sexuality he was probably triggering even more coverage. In retrospect, he was more justified in this view than he seemed to many people at the time. Was he not entitled to maintain his privacy? He insisted angrily to one journalist pressing him to come out publicly, that it was a "metropolitan, liberal middle- class obsession" that didn't "matter a damn to people in Hartlepool". In this he was almost certainly right. It is odd how irrelevant in retrospect the subject, which had become a press obsession in early December, now seems.
He was also anxious to protect Reinaldo Avila da Silva from intrusive publicity. Avila, whose family live in a middle class suburb of Rio, is highly intelligent and multilingual and has a strong personality, with a drive for academic qualifications. Whether the relationship proves permanent or not, Mandelson has never spoken about it, and may never do so. But his relationship with Avila was the most serious he had had since he shared a house with Peter Ashby, first in Clapham Manor Street and then in Prince George Road, Hackney, in the early Eighties.
When Peter Mandelson started work as Director of Communications for Labour, he had been sharing a house for more than three years in Clapham Manor Street, south London, with Pete Ashby and Sue Robertson, who became Dr David Owen's spokesman at the SDP. His relationship with Ashby, a gentle, outgoing man who worked in the TUC Education Department and had been active in student politics, was the most important of his adult life. Lean, handsome, and with hardly an enemy in the world, Ashby had been to Latymer Upper School, where he was head boy, and Warwick University. He was bisexual; when they met, Mandelson was working at the TUC while Ashby was deputy president of the National Union of Students. They had overlapped briefly at the TUC when Ashby Joined the Education Department at Congress House.
For most of this period, life in the house in Clapham was harmonious and happily domestic. Mandelson commandeered the study he supposedly shared with Ashby, and would sometimes irritate Ashby and Robertson by breaking certain house rules: if he returned home early to find Jackie, the cleaner, still at work, he would divert her from her other duties to do his ironing.
The most dramatic event of Mandelson's first year in Clapham Manor Street was the birth of Peter Ashby's child. Ashby had had an affair with a female colleague at the TUC; they had gone on holiday together and she had unexpectedly become pregnant. Ashby was determined to take his full share of responsibility as a parent, and remained in close contact with her throughout the pregnancy. Mandelson reacted with utter calm; the pregnancy did nothing to damage his relationship with Ashby.
One Sunday evening in the summer of 1983, about a month before the baby was due and as Ashby was sharing supper with Mandelson and Robertson, the mother-to-be came to the house for supper, anxious that she was about to give birth. Though her three friends were sceptical, they drove off to University College Hospital, where it rapidly became clear that the mother-to-be had been right. Within an hour or so the trio were inspecting the infant who was to play an important part in Mandelson's, as well as Ashby's, life for many years to come, and to whom Mandelson became wholly devoted - playing almost as great a part in the boy's life as his parents.
Mandelson and Ashby have never spoken about their relationship, or why they split up at the end of the decade. But, according to friends, one factor was the time and effort spent by Mandelson on his political career. Ashby felt that his own work was overshadowed and at times inhibited by Mandelson's Labour Party role. More crucial, however, were Ashby's anxieties about his son growing up with his father in a relationship with a man. Ashby is now married. All three friends remain on warm terms today.
Mandelson believed that when on 27 October he was "outed" as a homosexual for the fourth or fifth time, this time by Matthew Parris, it was like a breach in the dam which had hitherto protected him from a torrent of interest in his personal or "non-political" life. Because the baying media had not been placated by any admission about his sexuality, it had remained ravenous for another confession. Thus he became vulnerable to the exposure of what would otherwise have been a forgivable lapse. That was surely an underestimate of the controversy the loan would have caused, whatever the circumstances. But it would be baffling in hindsight, even to some of Mandelson's greatest sympathisers in Downing Street, that, while an infinitely more destructive nemesis was about to overtake him, so many man-hours had been deployed on the much less dangerous question of his sexuality - a matter of commendably little concern to the Prime Minister.
When he resigned, Avila was in London, on a break from his Japanese studies in Tokyo. When the Blairs invited Mandelson to join them for a family supper at Chequers that evening, they suggested that he bring Avila with him. Mandelson did, driving up in a borrowed car to Buckinghamshire. They had a drink, supper (breaking off to watch his resignation interviews on the television news), stayed the night, and returned to London around noon.
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