Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Stoning the Fox

Scandal ain't what it used to be, and neither are smear campaigns. That which Liam Fox pronounced himself the victim of must be among the strangest in British history, extraordinarily restrained and polite. Because whilst allegations relating to state security must be taken very seriously indeed, everybody knew there was another matter underlying this. Until Chris Bryant's comments in the House about how anybody, even in politics, ought to be allowed a friend, few had even hinted at it.

That matter, of course, is Fox's sexuality. It has been approached with caution for two reasons. Firstly, it's a personal matter. Secondly, the issue here isn't really whom Mr Fox is attracted to per se, but whether or not he was having a romantic relationship with the ubiquitous Mr Werrity. There is a difference between what interests the public and what is genuinely in the public interest. But there are other aspects to Fox's behaviour that make his sexuality acutely relevant to public matters.

Bryant is a politician whom I have always admired for pursuing his profession at a time when it was very difficult to do so as an openly gay person. I dropped out of a promising political career myself because I felt I would simply have no chance in what was then an intensely homophobic media climate, and I know a number of other prominent people - now working in journalism, the civil service or the charity sector - who did likewise. One cannot, then, accord much blame to those who might have chosen to keep their sexuality a secret in order to pursue such careers, especially if, as is bound to be the case for some, they valued their political principles more highly than personal freedom and openness.

There is a danger, however, in having politicians in senior positions who harbour secrets which they dare not see exposed. Fundamental to changing the law on homosexuality in England was the Dirk Bogarde film Victim, which centres on a lawyer who is compromise by blackmail relating to his sexuality. Viewing the film, the public came to understand that not only is homophobia damaging to individuals, a climate of secrecy about such a matter creates dangerous opportunities for extortion. It creates a risk of corruption and, should that apply to a Minister of Defence, the potential dangers to state security could be considerable.

In politics, these risks are managed by a system of vetting whereby individuals working closely with the government are asked about their secrets and vulnerabilities. This does not necessarily apply to ministers, but efforts are made to ensure that those in positions of power cannot be compromised. Additional security was, in recent years, provided by the close relationship between Downing Street and certain media magnates, but now that relationship has started to sour the risks are increasing, as today's sniping at Fox by The Sun reveals.

The Sun story has not gone down as well as its editors might have expected. Aside from a pretty flimsy premise (which suggests there could be no legitimate reasons for secrecy around who visits the Minister of Defence), it has roundly been perceived as homophobic. But whilst attacking Fox over the suspicion of homosexuality is contemptible, there is a legitimate side to journalistic probing in this area. It would be entirely legitimate to attack Fox for hypocrisy.

Those of you who remember the Family Values moral crusading of the Conservative Party in the 'eighties will be familiar with this one. Ultimately, if you are going to condemn others for certain types of behaviour then you had better not be caught doing it yourself. Whether it's having threesomes with other people's wives and daughters or ordering a distraught secret lover to have an abortion, it is not going to advance your political career.

Most of the Conservative Party has moved on from those days, at least when it comes to homosexuality. But Liam Fox has not. Right from the start of his career, when he was involved in student politics at the University of Glasgow, he was spouting exclusionary rhetoric about gay people. Since 1998 he has voted against the liberalisation of laws relating to homosexuality nine times, and has absented himself from such votes a further ten times. This position, increasingly extreme within the context of his party, has endeared him to its right wing, which has been instrumental in advancing his career. To put it bluntly, without the support he bought at the expense of gay people, it is unlikely he would have become Minister of Defence, and he certainly wouldn't have come to be seen (at least until recently) as a strong potential challenger to David Cameron.

Of course, it is quite possible to argue that even if he were gay he might genuinely believe homosexuality to be morally wrong, and may thus have voted in good conscience. Some of his choices, such as voting against measures designed to protect children from homophobic bullying, might still seem harsh, but of course he is entitled to them. What he is not entitled to is the freedom to make those choices on behalf of an electorate which is unaware of the contrast between what he says others should do and what he may in fact be doing himself. To draw a parallel, an MP caught engaging in tax avoidance whilst urging that others be punished for it could not reasonably expect to get an easy ride from the press.

If Fox is in fact gay or bisexual, several concerns arise. He has been exploiting right wing supporters who might never have backed him had they been aware of his behaviour. He has enjoyed the freedom to indulge his own passions whilst seeking to deny that to others. And he has, through his secrecy, potentially put state security at risk. It is often said that the first duty of a government is to protect its people. If the Minister of Defence is compromised, that is no small thing.

There is of course another possibility, which is that Fox may be gay but suffering from internalised homophobia, perhaps in relation to his religious beliefs. But as far as the security issues go, this isn't just about sex, it's about the strength of a particular emotional attachment. Imagine that Mr Werrity were in fact a young woman. The papers then would likely have been even quicker to shout scandal! in relation to all those meetings, as I'm sure Christine Keeler would confirm. And sexual attraction in denial can make emotional influences all the more powerful - there's nothing like the lure of forbidden fruit.

Could it all be nonsense? Could Fox be straight? Of course (and it could be that any corruption he may be involved in is purely mercenary, with no mitigating emotional element). Still, in light of all the revelations over the years preceding this one, it will be difficult for him to convince many people of that. And it is public business, because the consequences of hypocrisy and secrecy could be dire for all of us.

All these matters mean that Fox's position must now be considered untenable. Not only is he a liability as Minister of Defence (his civil service minders must be tearing their remaining hair out trying to work out how to vet his appointments) but it seems likely he will have lost that critical wedge of support that made him a future leadership contender. The game is up. Short of a Portillo-style reinvention, there are few ways forward. Those of us who considered but could not face Bryant's struggle may feel some sympathy, but if this is a tragedy, it is a tragedy of Fox's own making.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

The Ladies Are Turning

It's rare for a sitting prime minister to go on television and make a well publicised apology; rarer still when the issue at hand is not one of policy, but of his general behaviour. Yet that's what David Cameron has now done. His apology to women (“I said a few things... that didn't come out right”) marks an urgent attempt to stem the flow of women voters away from the party. He is right to be worried. Women's votes have always been a key plank in Tory success, and when a key demographic like this leaves, it rarely comes back.

When British women first obtained the vote in 1918, they quickly disabused sitting politicians on the assumption that they would vote like their husbands. Yet although the suffragists at the heart of the movement were radicals, women's votes have always, in the majority, tended to the right of the political spectrum. To an extent this is explained by the fact women live longer and most people move to the right as they get older (furthermore, traditionally, older people have been more likely to defer to perceived natural authority). But as the Conservatives at the last election came to rely much more heavily on the support of the young, they retained a lot of that female support, with polls giving them a 45% female approval rating.

That figure has now dropped to 25%.

So what? you might ask. Conservative support has clearly not fallen by that much overall, so they must have made gains elsewhere. But what matters – and their election managers will know this – is not just support, but the solidity of that support. The loss of this set of votes which could previously be taken for granted will hit the Conservative party the way Labour has been hit by its loss of support in urban Scotland. There is no way any political party can afford to campaign for every vote and policies can't be tailored to suit everyone, so these underlying blocks of support are essential to success. They allow campaign managers to relax in some areas and concentrate their tactics more efficiently in others. No party is equipped to handle a truly unpredictable electorate.

Will Cameron's apology make a difference? The early signs say otherwise – it may even have been a mistake. By acknowledging certain of his errors, Cameron has highlighted the problem to those who hadn't worried about it before whilst at the same time suggesting to his critics that he fails to understand the real issue. If he could have avoided the casually sexist remarks in parliament then he might have got away without having to talk too much about policy, but at this stage he will have to give dissatisfied women voters something more substantial. The suggestion that it is really all just about explaining better isn't going to wash. Women up and down the country are used to hearing carefully prepared explanations from errant men in their lives.

So we come to the age old question, what do women want? Whilst it might be tempting to shout furiously that women are people and want the same things as any other people, the stats present a more complicated picture. Women are more likely to have family responsibilities; to be carers; to be unemployed (female unemployment is now at its highest for nearly twenty five years) or to be low-waged. This makes them more likely to be impacted directly by the cuts. They also do the bulk of grocery shopping, so are more likely to notice and worry about rising food prices. They constitute the majority of elderly and disabled people, making them more vulnerable to the cold and more likely to be concerned by increasing fuel costs. And those lower levels of full employment mean women are more likely to be involved in community activities, primarily with other women – so their worries are likely to be shared.

For these reasons and more, pleasing women is likely require at least a rebalancing, if not a wholesale rethink, of the government's attempts to reduce the deficit. But there's more. Women are smart enough to know when they are being patronised and pandered to, so bringing them on side will require demonstrating that they have a voice in government. It is possibly in acknowledgement of this that we have seen a bit more of the Conservatives' female ministers lately. Whilst it is unlikely that Theresa May's pronouncements on the Human Rights Act will result in any real change, she is a forceful politician and her renewed prominence may do something to counter the image of the government front benches as a millionaire boys' club. Sayeeda Warsi, meanwhile, has featured prominently in conference coverage. It may be unfortunate that she embodies some of the worst stereotypes of femininity, but at least in this context she can demonstrate her emotional intelligence (more valuable that colleagues may realise) without getting into the sort of muddle over logic that she did when it came to AV.

The party's real difficulty will be in convincing women voters that this is more than just window dressing. This time around it doesn't have the advantage of a female leader, and it is difficult for it to take a strong lead on family issues when the Tea Party across the water is making this area toxic for the right. What it needs is to identify key issues affecting women's lives and focus funding there, rather than frittering it away on speed limit changes and extra bin collections that may please stalwart supporters but won't win over wavering ones. It needs to start investing now, before the rot gets too severe, or it may find its foundations crumbling.