Saturday, 29 May 2010

David Laws and the closet

There was an interview with David Laws in The Times this morning, recorded and written up before the expenses story broke. "David Laws says he does not know whether he is living in a dream or a nightmare," it begins.

That would be a nightmare, then.

What a difference 24 hours makes. Yesterday Laws was the new superstar of the Lib Dem front bench, making Vince Cable look suddenly old-fashioned and irrelevant and even Nick Clegg a little daft (Cameron would never have described David Laws as his "favourite joke", would he?). Today he looks like a throwback to last year's dismal procession of expenses fiddlers. He appears to have been caught bang to rights. If so, his ministerial career will suffer at least an interruption - a tragedy for him, but more so for the country. For it is clear from his performance at the dispatch box the other day that there is no-one else, Conservative or (a fortiori) Lib Dem with the intellectual and moral capacity to do the necessary but unpleasant job of budget-cutting. He has the rigour and financial expertise to understand the reality of the economic situation facing Britain, but he also has impeccable liberal principles. My only regret was that he couldn't be chancellor.

He has been more than silly. A wealthy man, he did not need to claim £40,000 in Parliamentary expenses to rent a room in his lover's South London flat. The excuse that he was engaged in a subterfuge to conceal his sexuality may reflect his inner turmoil, but in these days of ultra-transparency (on matters financial, but also, sadly, on matters sexual) isn't satisfactory. All cabinet ministers must be whiter than white: one charged with scything billions from the national budget must be beyond even the whisper of a shadow of suspicion.

So he had to go. But the case raises other questions, in particular whether it is or should be possible for someone in public life to conceal their sexuality from the world. David Laws was in the somewhat unusual position - certainly these days though not perhaps in times past - of being neither open and partnered nor furtive and promiscuous. According to the Independent, the ex-Chief Secretary is now saying that James Lundie (whom he met in his mid-thirties) was the only person he had ever had a relationship with. That suggests, at the very least, an ascetic devotion to politics (or, previously, to making money in the City). It may also point to guilt and sexual repression.

A recent article in the Erotic Review, by an anonymous former Commons researcher, lifted the lid on Westminster's hyperactive gay scene. The writer had "lost count of the number of married MPs, most but by no means all Tories, who are prone to fondling your arse after a few drinks." (Somehow I doubt that David Laws ever came into that category.) He nevertheless expressed sympathy for "many of the closet cases, especially the older ones who had to contend with lonely encounters in public parks and a life lived in fear at being exposed." These days, by contrast, there were MPs in civil partnerships, "shiny examples of our new tolerant society." He concluded that "the stench of hypocrisy around Parliament has lessened."

Before he was forced to go, Laws declared that it was "in some ways a relief" to have been forced out of the closet, and apologised that he had "not been honest about who I am." He goes further, lecturing the rest of the world about the benefits of his newly-discovered openness: "I hope that others will now learn that it is time for people to be honest about their sexuality. Keeping secrets is much tougher than telling other people who you really are." As now seems to be assumed, his sexual orientation thus becomes synonymous with who he "really is". Yet, to judge from his apparently limited sexual history, being gay would seem to be a rather small part of David Laws' identity. A brilliant economist, a millionaire in his twenties, a political theorist (he was largely responsible for the Orange Book that did so much to rescue the Liberal Democrats from its Muesliant Tendency) and confident, competent minister: these are what he really is, and what has been lost to the Cabinet.

It should be irrelevant that Laws wanted to keep his private life private. Yet for all that this has been presented as just another expenses scam, the fact is that the revelations about his sexuality have been at the centre of today's story. There has been a barely-suppressed glee and titillation in some quarters reminiscent of the days - not that long ago, but assumed gone forever - when the discovery that so and so bats for the other team could in itself destroy a career. But there have equally been comments such as this from the apparently sympathetic Graham Mckerrow:


The closet was at the root of Jeremy Thorpe's troubles and again we see it rocking the heart of the liberal establishment. The closet is no place to live; it offers no peace of mind, involves constant deception and risks disaster. I am only astonished that after all the years of law reform and changing public attitudes, this is a message that still needs to be heard in 2010. It is disappointing that the gay liberation movement is still needed here in the UK, as well as in even more troubled nations such as Malawi.


Yet for all we know David Laws may have been perfectly happy in the closet, and remained so had he not been ejected from it in these career-wrecking circumstances. He has been forced to resign; he shouldn't feel compelled to mouth fashionable platitudes about the wonderful new freedom that comes with openness. I doubt that's how he's feeling at the moment, or how he felt when he was trying desperately and unsuccessfully to save his job. Many people are comfortable with talking about their private sexual lives, and some like to bore others with the details. There's a widespread assumption that this is the only way to be. It's an orthodoxy that can be almost as oppressive as the old forced closet used to be.

The concluding words of the Times interview read cruelly today. "Unmarried and with no children or distractions, he can concentrate on the job of making the coalition work" wrote interviewers Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thompson. If only.