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The Simon Hughes Affair: Things Get Worse For Britain’s Liberal Democrats

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LONDON, U.K. – Anyone in Britain who is even the slightest bit politically minded must surely be asking himself at the moment: How much worse for the Liberal Democrats can it get?

First, Charles Kennedy was expelled from the party after he admitted his alcoholism. The only interesting thing about their interim leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, was the pronunciation of his name – “Ming-iss, not Men-zees!” – and then soon after the Kennedy debacle, senior Lib Dem Mark Oaten’s political career was fubared by revelations that he cheated on his wife by partaking of the services of rent boys.

The Liberal Democrats were declared dead in the water by this point. But wait – it gets better!

Another senior Lib Dem vying for the leadership of the battered party, Simon Hughes, was asked repeatedly about his sexual preference in the wake of Mark Oaten’s fall from grace. He insisted he was straight and said it was a lifelong goal of his to get married. Now, however, it’s clear that it’s gay marriage he was probably thinking of.

This month alone, he has denied his homosexuality four times. One of these denials came during an interview with The Daily Telegraph on January 14. Mr Hughes stated, with regard to being gay: “The answer is no, as it happens, but if it was the case – which it isn’t – I hope that it wouldn’t be an issue.” Hughes also spoke to The Telegraph of relations with women that “haven’t quite ended in marriage.” He went on to deny allegations of his homosexuality to The Guardian and The Independent as well as on the BBC television affairs program Newsnight.

You can blame this on the eagerness of the press to create scandal, which they thrive on. You can also say that his sexuality is not an issue – and you would be quite right. I don’t see what being gay has to do with one’s ability to make a hard-working member of Parliament myself.

On Thursday, January 26, Hughes admitted to The Sun tabloid, “I am perfectly willing to say that I have had both homosexual and heterosexual relationships in the past. I hope that does not disqualify me from doing a good job in public life and I propose to carry on doing that with the usual enthusiasm and determination.”

Now let me repeat my support for Hughes when he asserts that one’s sexual orientation should not be a barrier to public life. Of course it shouldn’t. This is an undeniable truth.

But, truth doesn’t necessarily equal reality. The reason Hughes hid his sexuality all throughout his 22 years in politics has to do with the fact that he would have fallen from grace at the hands of bigots had he revealed his homosexuality earlier during his career. These denials simply became a force of habit. It was only his constant bachelorhood that caused speculation of his true sexual preference.

Can you imagine Hughes proclaiming, “Yes, for the past 22 years as a Member of Parliament and the Liberal Democrat party, I lied about my sexual orientation. I had to. Because you, the voter, and they, the media, would have castigated me. You wanted a straight man, so I gave you a straight man, even if it wasn’t true.” I think Hughes would be well within his rights to launch such straight talk, if you’ll forgive the pun. Mr Hughes’ homosexuality or bisexuality is a non-issue.

But it’s the question of honesty that is hurting the Lib Dems. Charles Kennedy repeatedly denied his alcoholism until threatened by ITV to come clean. Mark Oaten enjoyed gay sex with rent boys under his unsuspecting wife’s nose, so The News of the World revealed, jeopardizing his familial relations and political career. And now Simon Hughes has admitted his homosexuality only when his back was up against the wall, with The Sun claiming it had telephone record proof of his participation on gay chat lines.

The Lib Dems are hurting as a result. The latest YouGov poll indicates that both Labour and the Conservatives are profiting from the Liberal Democrats’ collapse. The returns of the May 2005 general election had support for Labour at 36 percent, the Conservatives at 33 percent, and the Liberal Democrats a very successful (for them) 23 percent. Today, Labour enjoys 40 percent support and the Conservatives 39 percent, while the Liberal Democrats have tumbled to a disheartening 13 percent. The Liberal Democrats find themselves back at square one.

I could forgive Hughes the whole affair. He lied understandably to save his political career against homophobic backlash. Except for one dirty fact.

In 1983, Hughes ran as “the straight choice” against the openly homosexual Labour candidate Peter Tatchell during the Bermondsey by-election. Hughes won the London district after initiating gay slurs against Tatchell. Hughes apologized for the homophobic nature of his ’83 campaign and Tatchell has said he forgives Hughes, but added, “The Lib Dems ran a very dirty campaign which stirred up a lot of homophobia against me.”

As with betraying Charles Kennedy during an hour of need, we are once again forced to ask ourselves: The Liberal Democrats, liberal?

Hughes himself told BBC2 on Newsnight: “I have never been comfortable about the whole of that campaign as Peter knows, and I said that to him in the past, privately and publicly.” Tatchell has responded by saying he does not hold a grudge.

But it certainly raises the question over whether or not Simon Hughes is now receiving his comeuppance. Dirty tricks, shady pasts and lying about them now appear par for the course for the Liberal Democrats.

As Mark Thomas of The New Statesman quips, “Charles Kennedy is a recovering alcoholic. Mark Oaten has a predilection for rent-boy rough action. It has taken some time, but finally the Lib Dems are starting to behave like a proper political party.” But this has not translated into success for them. The Lib Dems are in free fall.

Will Britain’s third party ever recover?

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  • Nancy

    Talk about what goes around comes around! While I can sympathize a bit, it certainly is a case of cosmic justice, ain’t it?

  • Alex

    First of all, Charles Kennedy was not expelled from the Liberal Democrats, only deposed as party leader. Second, while the Bermondsey by-election was certainly dirty, Simon Hughes was not the man responsible for it. Most of the homophobic campaigning came from the so-called “Real Labour” candidate John O’Grady, who was seen by most of the media at the time as the main challenger to Peter Tatchell (in fact he won about 7% of the vote). That campaigning seems to have been transferred in people’s minds to the actual winner. Incidentally, the “straight choice” in the election literature was intended to emphasize to the voters that the election was a fight between Hughes and Tatchell. It’s unfortunate that the word had another meaning in this context.