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Jewish World Review June 28, 2001/ 7 Tamuz, 5761

Suzanne Fields

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'Why can't a man be more like a woman?' -- ENGLISH manhood ain't what it used to be. You don't see many men carrying rubber galoshes or long black umbrellas on sunny mornings, just in case it rains (which it usually does). Men are a lot less formal now and a lot more casual in Londontown.

They're also more maternal.

Tony Blair took advantage of the first photo opportunity after his landslide victory as prime minister standing in the doorway at No. 10 Downing Street, holding his infant son Leo. The crowd cried: "Give 'em a kiss! Give 'em a kiss!''

The expanding-family man took full advantage of the family values theme, milking it almost dry. Without Princess Diana to epitomize these touchy-feely times, the Labor Party stretches for the male family values image (without the stretch marks).

The last prime minister to embody masculine toughness, of course, was Margaret Thatcher. The Conservatives, having failed to come up with anyone close to her stature, may instead choose a reformed homosexual to lead the Tories.

Oscar Wilde's love that dare not speak its name is getting a loud "Hear! Hear!'' as Michael Portillo, the candidate leading the pack to lead the Tories into the new century, talks openly of his homosexual experiences as a young man. (He's been married for 19 years.) His gay supporters say he can do for the social issues what Margaret Thatcher did for the economic ones -- usher in radical change with a conservative model. That's what some Tories are afraid of.

"Gays are natural Conservatives,'' says Ivan Massow, a homosexual and once an adviser to William Hague, who just led the Tories to a second straight humiliation at the polls, and, in true British fashion, quit the field.

"Successful gays are products of the meritocracy,'' he told the London Daily Telegraph. "They believe in a small state and low taxation.''

Peter Just, age 28, a homosexual who manages a political bookshop in Westminster, offers similar perceptions, but with a more dramatic contemporary flair. "Of course we're Conservatives. We believe in freedom and individual responsibility and low tax -- and we love patriotism and pomp and circumstance. And we love Thatcher. We adore her. She's like an amazing diva -- Bette Davis, Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland rolled into one.''

Such sentiments are over the top for most Tories, who continue to regard homosexuality as a sin inviting the corruption of young men. When Margaret Thatcher appointed a homosexual to be her parliamentary private secretary, the tattlers remarked acidly that she had finally got an aide who knew how to carry a handbag. The poor man died at 51 of alcoholism, which many attributed to the nasty gossip about his gay sexuality, "gay'' being for him a miserable oxymoron.

The Iron Lady's personal choice for Tory leader is Iain Duncan Smith, whom a friendly colleague described as a "remarkably normal family man,'' intimating that he's in sharp contrast to that other guy, the gay experimenter.

Mr. Duncan Smith told a BBC interviewer that he knows how to change nappies and has experience raising kids, sounding like a man trying to compete with Tony Blair in knowing how to run a household, if not a country. He supports tax benefits for married couples and more private investment in the nation's dreadful socialized healthcare system. He also opposes England's abandoning the pound for the euro.

But the bookies in England say the odds are against him winning. He's bald, like William Hague, and, like William Hague, "charismatically challenged.''

The Conservative Party struggles to look "down to earth,'' not quite the same thing as earthy, and it's simply not natural for a Tory to wear blue jeans and a checkered shirt with an open collar, like Tony Blair. Tory leaders are grasping for a look that suits them, but sandals with socks and three-piece suits probably isn't it.

The Conservatives, says pundit Minette Marin, "managed to appear both uncaring and interfering. A political party can cope with one or other of those accusations, but not with both at once.'' That sounds a lot like George W.'s "compassionate conservatism,'' which he has had trouble defining, too.

The English have revived a wonderful production of the musical "My Fair Lady,'' but when Henry Higgins asks "Why can't a woman be more like a man?'' the professor lost a marvelous opportunity to update the script. Surely. the post-modern Higgins should be asking: "Why can't a man be more like a woman?''

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS