Ken Livingstone stood by his remark about the Conservative party being ‘riddled’ with gays this morning saying it was, in a way, complimentary to the Tories.

In an interview with radio station LBC 97.3, on which Livingstone presents a weekly Saturday morning show, he said the Tory party had shown “real progress” from a time when MPs were forced to resign if “exposed” as gay.

Saying the party had “caught up” with Labour, Livingstone added: “There’s no harm being gay in the Tory party. It was actually a slightly back-handed compliment”.

Many were condemning the London mayoral candidate yesterday after previews were released of an interview he gave to the New Statesman.

In the interview, he condemns “hypocrisy, like some Tory MP denouncing homosexuality while they are indulging in it”.

He adds: “Well, the Labour [MPs] have all come out . . . As soon as Blair got in, if you came out as lesbian or gay you immediately got a job. It was wonderful . . . you just knew the Tory party was riddled with it like everywhere else is.”

Gay Tory MP Alan Duncan said: “Many of us have managed to take this issue out of politics. It’s inexcusable for him to try to reintroduce it.”

When asked whether the word ‘riddled’ was offensive, having connotations of disease, Livingstone said this morning his New Statesman interview was light-hearted and should not be taken seriously.

But pressed on people being upset, he replied: “Well, no. Tory MPs who did nothing to defend gay rights seized on this because they want to spend the entire election talking about anything except fare increases or police cuts.”

The former mayor said he did not regret the word, adding that he and Boris Johnson “do say what we think”.

Livingstone added that “not a single” Tory MP who had become “worked up” over his comment had objected to Boris Johnson’s comment ten years ago “that he couldn’t see the difference between a man marrying a man and a man marrying a dog.”

Boris Johnson said today: “The Mayor is proud of the excellent gay men who have worked for him – not least his deputy Richard Barnes and the late Simon Milton, who was one of the first prominent men in public life to have a civil partnership.”

Liberal Democrat candidate Brian Paddick said: “When the Daily Mail columnist Melanie Philips said similar things about me being promoted when I was a police officer, I sued her and won.

“When he talks about homosexuality in the Conservative party as being “riddled with it like everywhere else” his remarks are clearly homophobic. He is a political opportunist who likes to be controversial in order to draw attention to himself, I think his true feelings towards LGBT people have seeped out.”

Gay Labour MP Chris Bryant told the Daily Politics on BBC2 that Livingstone’s use of the word ‘riddled’ was “pretty daft [...] I’m not a fan of this word riddled at all.”

He added: “I disagree with Ken using the term riddled but Ken Livingstone is not a homophobe. He has battled for LGBT rights for years, even when it was profoundly unpopular.”

In 2006, at the launch of an anti-homophobic bullying campaign spearheaded by the gay rights charity Stonewall, Livinstone told PinkNews.co.uk: “In my school of two thousand boys, roughly a third, maybe a half of them, whilst never thinking of themselves as gay, engaged in sexual acts with other boys.

“We had no idea that what we were doing was anything other than ‘naughty’ and something that our teachers frowned upon.”

He added: “It was mainly driven by the fact that we weren’t having sex. I grew up in a world where the average man didn’t lose his virginity until he was 19 and the average woman until they were 21. Many not until the night of their marriage, only after a whole day of eating and drinking, when you’re hardly going to get the best results!

“My generation has been wholly envious of the generations that followed in relation to sex.”