Byline: Alison Roberts
THE idea that veteran gay rights activist Peter Tatchell has been pulling David Cameron's strings over the gay marriage bill, inspiring the Prime Minister to action and even writing supportive lines for his speeches, seems absurd. Yet it's a notion that carries much weight within some Conservative circles at Westminster. In the House of Commons debate earlier this week, MP for mid-Bedfordshire Nadine Dorries even demanded that Maria Miller, the Minister for Women and Equalities, categorically deny the rumours. "Will the Minister please tell us that Mr Tatchell has not inspired this Bill, and that it is not based on his words ..." she asked crossly.
Tatchell is not a man to stand shyly aside and refuse credit where it's due. And, yes, he was at the centre of the intense lobbying that eventually won the day on gay marriage, he claims. But it wasn't David Cameron whose influence and support for the issue he valued most of all. It was that of London Mayor Boris Johnson.
"Boris's backing for same sex marriage was a game-changer," declares Tatchell simply.
It was in July 2010 that the Mayor memorably headed the annual Gay Pride march through central London, flanked by tattooed men in leather thongs and wearing an ill-advised pink cowboy hat. At the end of the march, Tatchell -- ever the stunt-puller -- ambushed Johnson in front of the world's media and "asked him directly whether he would support an end to the ban on same-sex marriage". Tatchell adds: "He stumbled for a few seconds and then said yes. And that was hugely important. With Boris Johnson supporting marriage equality, it was suddenly respectable in large sections of the Conservative Party. He's the second most influential Tory politician after Cameron.
Not all Tories love Boris, but very many do."
A few days later, Tatchell did it again. Invited to a reception for influential Londoners at City Hall he jumped onto the stage after Johnson's welcoming speech and thanked the Mayor for "supporting" gay marriage.
"And the entire audience burst into cheers and applause. That was really significant too."
At that stage, the Prime Minister, the Chancellor George Osborne and Home Secretary Theresa May were all publicly opposed to legalising gay marriage. May and Osborne had met Tatchell before the election and promised a review of government policy on the issue should they win power, but three months after forming the Coalition, informed him that the review had taken place and that no change would be made.
However, bounced or not, Boris was behind it -- but what made the PM, Osborne and May change their minds? Tatchell is well-placed to reveal the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring that led to Tuesday's historic vote (of which more later), if only because he has campaigned so hard on the issue for so long -- his Equal Love campaign is more than 10 years old -- and he has his spies.
His career in activism now spans more than 40 years; he famously works a seven-day week from his council flat in Bermondsey and subsists on less than [pounds sterling]10,000 in donations from well-wishers. To social conservatives he is bogeymanin-chief (the journalist Charles Moore calls him "an energetic crank") but within the gay community, and to many on the Left, he is a brave and principled exponent of direct action.
The general public knows Tatchell's long, lugubrious face, almost always seen beside a placard or banner, largely from news footage of violent scuffles. He has been assaulted many times, and horribly beaten twice -- once by thuggish bodyguards while attempting a citizen's arrest of Robert Mugabe in Brussels, and again during an ugly attempt to export Gay Pride to Moscow. He has minor brain damage as a result, and last month had an operation to restore some of the sight lost in his right eye. When he smiles, Tatchell reveals, at 61, what look like expensively veneered teeth. …