Sunday, 24 November 2013

Crispin Blunt: Prehistoric

When Crispin Blunt faced an attempt to deselect him as a Tory MP by traditionalists who were appalled by his decision to come out as gay, he knew he had two options: fight or flight. The former army officer who served as Prisons Minister at the start of the coalition chose to face down the old guard in Reigate, his Surrey constituency. The codename for his campaign team was “The Meteors” because, he says: “It was the meteors that killed the dinosaurs.”

This week he won a resounding victory in a ballot of all local members and is convinced this shows that the prehistoric age is over for the Conservatives. “It was a very important moment,” he says. “A lot of gay people will have written the Tory Party off as irredeemably homophobic. Well, the Reigate membership has just selected a gay Conservative candidate by five to one.”

Although one senior figure in the association said that he had been “the author of his own misfortune” and that it had been an “error of judgment” to make a public declaration, Mr Blunt says that this attitude will soon be extinct. “It’s frankly not very compassionate or understanding. The world has moved on. British society has moved on and the Conservative party has moved on. What this process has shown is that these people are now a tiny minority.” He hopes that the ringleaders will resign. “I don’t need to clean out all the people who didn’t vote for me but it’s terribly important I can work with the constituency association.”

The MP, who comes from a military family, understands the mindset of the traditionalists. A staunch Eurosceptic, he is also a fiscal conservative who would cut the top rate of tax to 40p. He came to terms with his own sexuality only three years ago, when he was 50 and after almost 20 years of marriage.

“All I knew at age 18 was that I simply wasn’t allowed to be gay so if I felt anything in that direction it had to be suppressed. These things called girls were frightfully difficult but the alternative just wasn’t allowed. I knew I had to have a girlfriend. It was just a nightmare — oh God I’ve got to find someone to go to a ball with. Then when I finally discovered sex it was fine, that all worked so I kept going.”

As a young man, he never questioned the assumptions he had been raised with. “I felt there was something wrong with me. I wasn’t growing up in metropolitan London, I grew up in an army community. There was not an overwhelmingly social liberal atmosphere at home. It didn’t really occur to me that the reason I found girls so hard was that if actually I gave myself the freedom I much preferred boys.”

Even after he was elected to Parliament in 1997, he spoke against the equalisation of the age of consent. “I didn’t start to understand myself until I was in my 40s. I made a speech to the effect that you could choose, because I had felt I had chosen. I had suppressed my gay side because I wanted to be a politician, and my first career had been in the Army, where it was illegal. You knew what happened to people who were thought to be in gay relationships in the Army. The military police would arrive and would rip your accommodation to shreds trying to find the evidence then you could be dishonourably discharged.”

By the time of that debate in 2001, though, he was starting to question his sexuality. “I knew the truth inside, by then. I knew if I was going to buy porn what I would want to look at. I had probably known the preference at a subliminal level since I was 12 but had never been in a position to act on it. I thought the slightest giveaway by me, in terms of any sense of affection towards a man, would be fatal and would destroy everything. You have a total defence mechanism so you therefore probably become more awkward as a personality, less affectionate.”

Although in public, the MP lived what he calls a “completely straight lifestyle”, privately he started experimenting. “I began to see the odd guy in the course of my 40s, usually on overseas visits, then I did begin to actively explore that part of myself.” Things came to a head in 2010, just a few months after he had been appointed a minister by David Cameron. “I went off to Barcelona on my own for a week and got chatting to an American couple who were on their honeymoon. They had no idea who I was and they said: ‘Why don’t you just tell your wife?’ I thought: ‘Yes why not?’”

When he got home, he told Victoria. “My reaction was this huge sense of relief that it was finally out there,” he says. Although he admits it was a “difficult time” for his wife to start with, the truth has, he believes, been a liberation for them both. “One of Victoria’s complaints in the marriage was that she could never reach me inside, that there was always a protected part of me, which, of course, there was,” Mr Blunt says. “Now our relationship is actually much more relaxed . . . I’m her gay best friend. We have lovely conversations. We are open with each other, united around our children.”

Although they are separated they have still not divorced. Their two children, who were 18 and 16 at the time he came out, have also been “remarkably” understanding, he says. “They were amazingly mature about it.” A cousin, who had been at Sandhurst at the same time as Mr Blunt but had quit because he had realised that he was gay, came to visit him. “I knew there was this gay cousin who nobody wanted to talk about, it was all hushed up. He had been incredibly brave and he told me about the gay scene in London in the 1980s. In some ways I feel I missed out but he said he buried two thirds of his friends to Aids.”

Three weeks after he told the family, they put out a statement saying that the minister had separated from his wife and “decided to come to terms with his homosexuality”. “I wanted to make clear there was no blame attached to Victoria. I didn’t want to be seen in a club, or in a relationship, when no one knew — that would have been horrible.” The Prime Minister, and other Tory MPs, have been incredibly supportive, he says. “When I got back to Parliament for the first time, colleagues were coming up to me all sympathetic and saying: ‘Are you all right?’ and I found myself saying:‘Of course I’m all right, I’m ecstatic’.”

He has been on what he calls a “voyage of discovery” on the gay scene. “Yes, I’ve had boyfriends. I feel as if I’m 21, so if I came out when I was the equivalent of 18 I’m in the early stages of working out relationships. I’m having a ball. I’m finally at ease with myself and I don’t have to hide.” Some members of his local constituency association were, however, less relaxed. In September, the executive council voted not to adopt him as the Conservative candidate. He was “shocked” by the result and is convinced that he was the victim of a “homophobic” campaign against him. When, in 2002, Alan Duncan was the first Tory MP to come out , the local grandees declared that they would never support a gaycandidate in Reigate.

“There is a vindictiveness to local politics that is much worse than Westminster,” Mr Blunt says. “It is poisonous toytown and that is what I am determined to stop. When it is at its best it is fun — you go out canvassing with mates then all go for a pub lunch. But when it is going wrong it’s really hideous and personal. It’s worse because it’s voluntary — they think what they are doing is good and moral — but it’s all about positioning.

“The women’s group had also become toxic. I think there might have been a feeling among the ladies that my wife had been treated badly and revenge should be taken. Victoria went to talk to them and said we were in a good place and were still friends, but they wouldn’t really talk to me.”

The gay marriage debate exacerbated the tensions. “People were unhappy about that but it was the most ridiculous fuss. It was a pretty microscopic legal change, and suddenly all hell breaks loose.” Although he won’t describe local Tories as “swivel-eyed loons”, he does worry that associations can be dominated by reactionaries. “Most of the party has changed, but of course some of the people who are most enthusiastic to get involved are perhaps the people who have changed least . . . The officers who didn’t support me stayed silent. It was the opposition that dare not speak its name.”

He decided to challenge the executive council’s decision, appealing over their heads to the wider membership. “I love being an MP,” he says. “I didn’t want to give in.” There were 20 volunteers in his campaign team, and 300 supportive posts on his Facebook page and website. “My wife followed them touchingly closely and she rang up to say: ‘I keep waiting for you to be canonised’. They were absolutely lovely. They’re the best testimonials anyone could possibly have and they made a slam dunk case that this was not about my performance as an MP. ”

The Tory dinosaurs have, he believes, been crushed. “The Conservative Party now has more out gay MPs than all the other parties put together.

“In the space of a few years we have become a remarkably tolerant society and I think we should be proud of that. I don’t think it would be an issue to have a gay Prime Minister.”

Thought this was fascinating, because of the insight it gives to the utterly bizarre mindset of a formerly closeted top gay tory.

A gay prime minister?
Like Pitt The Younger, maybe Disraeli, Lord Rosebery, and Ted Heath?

PS Iain Dale asks in Attitude; Can You Be Gay And Be A Tory? This reads like it was written very quickly...

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