Magazine article The Spectator

The Story That Inexplicably Died, a Mystery Letter and a False Imputation of Social Liberalism

Magazine article The Spectator

The Story That Inexplicably Died, a Mystery Letter and a False Imputation of Social Liberalism

Article excerpt

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 followed 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 accusations 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 letter. Tut tut.'

There was more in the Sunday Telegraph. Compared with it, Atticus had been decorous. 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 homosexual period in question. Mr Portillo added that he had written to Lord Tebbit on 7 October, but had not received a reply. 'When 1 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 Sunday 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 Portillo, or intends to write, still less what he has written. Little wonder that the Conservatives find it hard to secure publicity.

Or perhaps others do not share my special interest in the matter. My interest in it is indeed special. For the letter to The Spectator on 25 September, which started it all, was in response to something which I had written the previous week. f 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'. …

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