David Cameron has tonight attempted to further diffuse the row over gay rights within the Conservative Party by sending shadow environment secretary, Nick Herbert, the most senior gay Conservative, to Poland to confront the homophobia displayed by the party’s Polish allies.
Tonight’s decision comes ahead of a TV election debate that looks certain to raise the issue of Mr Cameron’s allies within the European Parliament.
The Conservative Party last year controversially formed a coalition with the Law and Justice Party, founded by the homophobic late president Lech Kaczynski within the European Parliament.
Now, Nick Herbert will, according to Mr Cameron, take the Law and Justice party on a “journey” to moderate its views on homosexuality. Mr Herbert visited Washington DC in February to deliver a speech on how gay people can fit in to conservative politics.
Mr Cameron told The Guardian: “”We would not join with parties that had unacceptable views. But we do recognise that, particularly in central and eastern Europe, there are parties that have still got some way to go on the journey of recognising full rights for gay people. We are helping them make that journey.”
Mr Cameron echoed views expressed in a question and answer session with PinkNews.co.uk readers published earlier this month. “I would say there are partners of the Liberal Democrats who refer to homosexuality as a plague. How many times have you read that in the Guardian? There are partners of Labour that were collaborators with the communist regime in Poland that locked people up and was responsible for appalling human rights abuses.
“Our point is that it is good to have a new group that is against a federal Europe, that wants free trade, co-operation and progress in Europe. And yes, some countries, particularly some of the Catholic countries, do have very conservative social views. They are on a journey in respect of that and it is a journey we can help them with.”
This now marks the fifth occasion during the election campaign that Mr Cameron and his party have tried to reach out to the gay community.
Mr Cameron was due to explicitly mention gay people in his first speech of the campaign. But because he spoke without notes, he missed out the crucial line. He did later mention gay people in his list of the “great ignored” in a later speech.
Two weeks ago, he promised a new tax break for married couples which would include gay couples in civil partnerships. Critics pointed out that not offering the same break for gay couples would breach the Civil Partnership Act itself.
Then Mr Cameron wrote in an article for PinkNews.co.uk: “We are totally committed to the fight for gay rights and there will be absolutely no going back on equality legislation if a Conservative government is elected next month.
“From my first speech as party leader, I have made it clear that the Conservative Party supports the gay community and wholeheartedly supports gay equality.”
Mr Cameron promised to erase the criminal records of those guilty of historic gay sex offences for activities that are now lawful. He also said that he would introduce a “zero tolerance” policy on homophobic bullying, despite his party forcing the government to drop proposals to introduce compulsory sex education, something experts said would reduce incidents of homophobia in schools.
The following day, ahead of a demonstration organised by gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, shadow Chancellor George Osborne met with Mr Tatchell and said the party would consider the case for full gay marriage.
All of these attempts to change the party’s image among the gay community followed comments by shadow home secretary Chris Grayling where he suggested that bed and breakfast owners should have the right to ban gay couples and an interview where Mr Cameron was unable to immediately answer questions on gay rights and votes in the European Parliament. The party’s popularity in the gay community dropped by 5 % in a poll conducted for PinkNews.co.uk.
Earlier today shadow defence minister Dr Julian Lewis said he opposed the equal gay and straight age of consent, saying he feels there is an increased risk of HIV infection.