13 NOVEMBER 1999, Page 47


The story that inexplicably died, a mystery letter and a false imputation of social liberalism


Two Sunday papers had something unusually interesting this week about two of the few Conservative politicians who are themselves unusually interesting. Yet, at the time of writing, that is the last we have heard of it. The other papers have not fol- lowed it up. This lack is all the more odd since the thing reported, as well as being unusually interesting, is also potentially, if not already, scurrilous. What has happened to our redtops? Is this failure to follow up something scurrilous the final evidence that standards at the Sun, once the paper of record, are in decline?

The first of Sunday's two references was in the Sunday Times's Atticus column. That authority reported: 'Lord Tebbit's accusa- tions that Michael Portillo concealed the extent of his homosexual experiences in what he [that is, Lord Tebbit] described in a letter to The Spectator as "a decade of deviance" has not gone unchallenged.' It went on to say that Mr Portillo had written to Lord Tebbit `to put him straight'.

This was perhaps an unhappy phrase, given the context. There is nothing unstraight about Lord Tebbit, This whole matter arose because he is a stern critic of, and ever vigilant for, non-straightness in others. No matter. Mr Portillo, according to Atticus, was putting Lord Tebbit straight about the duration of his (Mr Portillo's, decidedly not Lord Tebbit's) homosexual past. But, as if this were not interesting enough, the Sunday Times item concluded: `To add insult to injury, Tebbit apparently failed to keep a promise to reply to the let- ter. Tut tut.'

There was more in the Sunday Telegraph. Compared with it, Atticus had been deco- rous. The Sunday Telegraph front page had the headline 'Portillo to Tebbit: stop your gay smears'. Below, Mr Portillo himself was quoted as saying that Lord Tebbit was `completely inaccurate' about the homo- sexual period in question. Mr Portillo added that he had written to Lord Tebbit on 7 October, but had not received a reply. `When I last saw him,' Mr Portillo was quoted as continuing, 'he said "I will reply to your letter." ' But Lord Tebbit had not replied. Mr Portillo concluded: 'I think the point is unanswerable.'

But Monday's papers took the story no further. One may quibble about whether Mr Portillo's remarks justified 'Portillo to Tebbit: stop your gay smears'. Sunday paper headlines are an inexact science. Still, this was better than the average Sun- day front-page tale. Here was one famous Tory accusing another of distorting what the first had said about how long was the period during which he (the first) had had homosexual experiences. This must fulfil any definition of news. Yet within 24 hours the story had died. We still have not read whether Lord Tebbit has written to Mr Por- tillo, or intends to write, still less what he has written. Little wonder that the Conser- vatives find it hard to secure publicity.

Or perhaps others do not share my spe- cial interest in the matter. My interest in it is indeed special. For the letter to The Spec- tator on 25 September, which started it all, was in response to something which I had written the previous week. I had written in mildly satirical surprise that Lord Tebbit, hitherto unappreciative of what Mr Tatchell and others would call 'lesbian and gay issues', had been quoted in the Sunday Times as giving Mr Portillo his 'full backing and said society had changed so much of late that he can easily imagine a man with a gay past being elected prime minister'.

Mr Portillo's original confession, it may be remembered, had been that he had had `some homosexual experiences as a young person'. In between my writing on the sub- ject and Lord Tebbit's letter of the follow- ing week, a 'gay lover' of Mr Portillo's had turned up in the Mail on Sunday to tell of their love. This love, it seems, had proceed- ed into Mr Portillo's twenties. My own view is that someone is still a 'young person' in their twenties, but Lord Tebbit seemed to think that this indicated that Mr Portillo had not been entirely candid.

His Spectator letter rejected my imputa- tion to him of social liberalism. I was enti- tled to have some fun at his expense, he allowed, by 'misrepresenting my views'. But he continued, `so let me make plain that when I spoke to the Sunday Times about

`I hate the way they take off your headscarf with their eyes.'

Mr Portillo, my support was given in the belief that he had no more than a brief homosexual encounter when little more than a schoolboy, which I am told is not uncommon. . .. Unhappily, what Mr Por- tillo had represented as the truth was not complete and we now know his deviance continued for almost a decade.' The Specta- tor gave the letter the slightly naughty head- ing Not-so-brief encounter'.

The use of 'deviance' to describe homo- sexuality suggested that any imputation to Lord Tebbit of the aforementioned social liberalism by me was wholly unjustified. I unconditionally withdraw any such imputa- tion, and apologise for any distress which my remarks may have caused him.

But there is still the matter of his letter to Mr Portillo. It is a private correspondence and none of us should seek to intrude into it. But we would not be human were we not to speculate about what, if it is ever written, such a letter might contain. Does Lord Tebbit now accept that these experiences of Mr Portillo's were confined to the time when Mr Portillo was 'a young person'? That is the question.

But, presumably, the letter would begin with some explanation of, and regret for, the delay in its being sent. Dr Johnson was good at that. Lord Tebbit could quote Johnson's letter of 1750 to James Elphin- stone: 'I cannot but confess the failures of my correspondence, but hope that the same regard which you express for me on every other occasion, will incline you to forgive me.' Or Johnson to Charles Burney: 'If you imagine that by delaying my answer I intended to shew any neglect of the notice with which you have favoured me, you will neither think justly of yourself or me.'

Lord Tebbit, were he to accept Mr Por- tillo's explanation of events, could continue along the lines of: 'I now fully accept that you did not persist beyond childhood in the deviance to which I was compelled to allude in my communication with The Spec- tator sheet, which communication was sole- ly for the purposes of correcting the effu- sions of a low scrivener. Such deviance is no less abhorrent for its having been practised in ancient Greece and Rome, which age at least had the merit of being less destitute in arts and letters than our own. . . . '

But perhaps the matter is best forgotten, and anyone raising it now is simply trouble- making.