A few weeks ago I discovered that while he should have been focused on the fight of his life during the referendum campaign, David Cameron was instead obsessing over whether or not his justice secretary, Michael Gove, had had an affair with my husband, Dom Cummings, campaign director of Vote Leave.
The story was in the Mail on Sunday, who eked it out across two consecutive issues. On week one it kept Dom and Michael’s names under wraps (for ethical reasons, it said) but revealed the source of the thrilling bit of gossip to be an aide of Cameron’s called Gavin Williamson (now Chief Whip). Williamson had, said the MoS, dashed into No. 10 ‘in the heat of the bitter EU campaign’ to deliver news of the fling to the PM.
Even before I knew Dom was one of the Brokeback Brexiteers this seemed a very curious tale. What could have made Williamson so sure? Why did he rush to tell the PM, ‘in the heat of the campaign’? The story was written as if somehow Williamson thought a gay romance shed light on the otherwise inexplicable success of Vote Leave. Perhaps he imagined they were all fuelled by homoerotic passion in the manner of the Spartans.
The following week the MoS, recovered from its bout of ethics, printed the names of the secret lovers and I felt an odd mix of emotions. First sadness, that it wasn’t a more exciting revelation, then a glimmer of understanding, followed by a feeling of anxious shame which has stayed with me ever since.
The understanding was about what might have been Williamson’s motive. Not then, nor now, does David Cameron accept that his pal Gove — a lifelong Eurosceptic — chose to campaign for Leave for the sake of his country. Cameron’s position on the matter, I’ve heard it said, is simply that ‘Gove chose the wrong DC’, Dominic C over David C, and that for this crime he will be forever dead to Dave. So what if Williamson, in the manner of all successful courtiers, was simply telling his leader what he thought he wanted to hear: an explanation as to how the ‘wrong’ DC could ever be preferred? This all makes Cameron’s No. 10 sound like teenage group chat on WhatsApp. If the young knew what really makes a modern Tory tick, they might identify with them more.
But though he (allegedly) spread lies about my husband, though he conjured images I will never quite recover from, I can’t be too cross with this Gavin — and here’s where the shame comes in. Over the past few decades I must have heard many dozens of stories about politicians or actors being secretly gay. Magazines, newspapers, the internet are full of them. Gay rumours follow like vapour trails in the wake of any star: in politics, sport, Hollywood, and I’ve never before paused for long enough to wonder if they’re nonsense. I’ve thought: no smoke without some romantic spark, and more often than not passed them on.
But what if almost all of the endless ‘insider’ stories about secretly gay celebs are as bogus as the Dom/Gove story?
It’s a rare political leader who isn’t ‘known’ to be homosexual by someone or other — excepting Cameron, for some reason, who perhaps doesn’t have the imagination to be gay.
There’s many who’ll swear Obama’s marriage is a sham, and that he was a frequent visitor to gay saunas in his Chicago days. He’s believed, among the sorts who think him a secret Muslim, to have had a fling with the very straight, very married mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel.
I interviewed the late fat chef Clarissa Dickson Wright a few years before she died, and she told me that she believed Tony Blair to have had gay relationships. They moved in the same circles at the Bar in the 1970s, she claimed, and his nickname was ‘Miranda’. Why? ‘Because of The Tempest — you know, when Miranda says: “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,/ That has such people in ’t.”’ It didn’t previously occur to me, even through the Wendi Deng affair, that this might be entirely untrue.
And what of all the whispering about the supposedly secret sexuality of William Hague, which eventually forced an embarrassing and sincere public denial? I spent my formative years in journalism as a gossip columnist and barely a month went by without my editor including a little paragraph on Hague’s ‘friendship’ with Seb Coe. Why did they practise judo so often, we wondered pathetically in print.
It’s all just utter cobblers, isn’t it? Is Tom Cruise straight? Is George Clooney’s marriage for real? What about John Travolta? What’s behind this great yearning need of ours for famous men and women to be gay?
There’s certainly nothing moral about all this fictitious ‘outing’. It’s not that we’re all intent on a healthy flinging open of all the closet doors because — what would be the need? There was a time when homosexual stars laid low for fear of suffering professionally; perhaps some politicians still do. But in 2016, in the West, all and any sexuality is increasingly a-OK. In the world of fashion and music, it’s decidedly cooler for a young star to be pansexual than narrow-mindedly straight.
I suspect the answer is that though our culture has moved on, our monkey minds haven’t. Though we think of ourselves as non-judgmental, it still seems excitingly transgressive to us that someone might be gay. If this were just about illicit sex or infidelity, there’d be rumours cooked up about settled gay couples having straight affairs, perhaps a secret affair between Elton John and Lady Gaga for instance, but no one has any interest in that.
The great gay rumour mill churns on. Just this week a great friend of mine insisted to me that Hillary Clinton is a lesbian. He knows, he says, really knows it for a fact. Everyone does. Thanks to Gavin Williamson, instead of passing on the news, I’ve bet him £100 it’s rubbish.