Labour peer Peter Mandelson says Boris Johnson’s ‘bum boys’ jibe was an ‘explicitly homophobic attack’ on him

The influential Labour Party figure, Lord Peter Mandelson

Former Labour cabinet minister Peter Mandelson has reflected on being the target of an “explicitly homophobic” jibe from Boris Johnson and being a “role model” for young gay people.

Mandelson held a series of powerful roles in the Labour Party under ex-prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, earning the nickname ‘the Prince of Darkness’ due to his behind-the-scenes influence and mastery of media.

While he did not publicly discuss his sexuality during his time in power and has only begun to do so in the past few years, Mandelson did not make a secret of the fact he was a gay man in political circles.

In an interview with Matt Forde’s The Political Party podcast, Lord Mandelson reflected: “I had never sought to hide my sexuality. I didn’t want to be defined by it, but in a sense I’m rather proud, actually, of being a role model for young gay people.

“With hindsight, I was giving confidence to other young gay men, in whatever field or sector, not necessarily in politics, who just wanted to be themselves, openly enjoy their lives, and not have to justify anything. Straight people don’t have to explain why they’re straight, why do gay people have to explain why they’re gay?”

Peter Mandelson suspects he wouldn’t have had to resign if he hadn’t been outed.

Mandelson’s willingness to live openly but aversion to discussion of his sexuality in public led to a number of incidents in which he was “outed” in the media, firstly by the News of the World newspaper in 1987 while managing the opposition party’s election campaign.

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He said: “I had been living as a completely open gay man with a with a partner, and had from the end of the 1970s. It seems incredible now that just to be gay was a legitimate story… it was the Murdoch press doing [Margaret] Thatcher a favour. That intervention was designed to help Thatcher’s election campaign.”

Mandelson was outed again a decade later while serving as Tony Blair’s secretary of state for trade and industry, when Times writer Matthew Parris referred to him as a gay man on the BBC current affairs show Newsnight.

He recalled: “When Matthew did this in 1998… I was sitting on my bed watching Newsnight doing my ministerial red box, and I didn’t bat an eyelid. But within an hour, I had The Sun newspaper banging on my front door demanding to know what was my response to Matthew Parris. I didn’t have a response!

“Then the rest of the media successfully pushed the story forwards by creating a completely artificial argument about the rights and wrongs of what Matthew had done.”

Minister for trade and industry Peter Mandelson at the 1998 Labour Party conference.
Minister for trade and industry Peter Mandelson at the 1998 Labour Party conference. (Getty/Jeff Overs)

Mandelson said the storm caused such agitation inside Downing Street that questions over whether he should issue a clarifying statement were ultimately referred up to prime minister Tony Blair.

The minister ended up resigning from his cabinet role a few weeks after the incident, when he was caught in a second media storm over a loan he received for a house payment from another Labour MP.

He reflected: “Because the two episodes virtually happened together, they were completely intertwined. I suspect that the resignation probably wouldn’t have happened and it not been for the media storm sparked by Matthew on Newsnight and the ensuing controversy, but there we are.”

Boris Johnson wrote ‘explicitly homophobic’ attack on the Labour figure.

His 1998 resignation was celebrated by future prime minister Boris Johnson, then a Telegraph columnist, who wrote an “explicitly homophobic” piece mocking his departure.

It read: “Weep, O ye shirt-makers of Jermyn Street, ye Cool Brittania tailors and whatever exists of human finer feeling. In the Ministry of Sound, the tank-topped bum boys blub into their Pils…. for Mandy is dead, dead ere his prime!”

Mandelson, later made a life peer, reflected: “Obviously I experienced homophobia in in the media, from The Sun and the Daily Mail, and famously from Boris Johnson, who when I left the government delivered a really explicitly homophobic attack on me in his column in The Telegraph. He referred to gay people as tank-topped bum boys and had me off in bars and clubs. I wish to be so lucky!”

Johnson has never disavowed the remark or publicly apologised, instead repeatedly claiming that his history of offensive jibes have been taken “out of context.”

When asked in a PinkNews Q&A last year whether he had apologised to Mandelson for the remark, Johnson said: “I’ve written many millions of words in my time as a journalist, and I’ve never intended to cause hurt or pain to anybody.”