Liz Truss started it all, in a manner of speaking.  In the summer of 2017, Theresa May promised to end conversion therapy.  The headline pledge included people who are LBGT+.  But the detailed commitment was targeted at people who are gay – at sexual orientation, not sexual identity.  “I was struck by just how many respondents said they cannot be open about their sexual orientation,” the then Prime Minister said.

Furthermore, to end a practice isn’t necessarily to bar it.  Now roll the clock forward to the spring of 2021.  Stonewall and other LGBT+ campaigners weren’t satisfied with an end to conversion therapy.  They wanted a ban.  Nor would they be happy with it being applied only to gay people.  They wanted it to cover trans people too.

Liz Truss, now Minister for Women and Equalities, moved to cover the second point: “We want to make sure that transgender people are free to live their lives and don’t face…horrific conversion therapy”, she said in March.  In April, three members of the Government’s LGBT advisory panel – note the missing plus – resigned from it, citing the absence of a ban.  In May, a bar on conversion therapy – unspecified – was promised in the Queen’s Speech.

But what exactly should be barred?  Opinion was divided in Downing Street and among Ministers.  The view of those opposed to a ban on trans conversion therapy was powerfully put in December 2021 by Nikki Da Costa, Johnson’s former adviser on legislative affairs, who had left Number 10 in August.

“It could create a situation whereby doctors, counsellors and therapists would be deterred from exploring with a child any feelings of gender dysphoria – discomfort with their sexed body – for fear that they will be accused of trying to “change” the child’s identity and potentially being dragged through the criminal justice system,” she wrote.  Number 10 was in a pickle.  Later that month, a consultation on a ban was extended.

Mike Freer said: “I am confident that our proposals strike the correct balance to stamp out coercive conversion therapy, whilst protecting free speech.”  He was cited as Minister for Equalities on the Government’s website in saying so.  The same website also states that the Minister for Equalities at the time was Kemi Badenoch.

In April 2022, Johnson made up his mind.  The Government would ban gay conversion therapy but not trans conversion therapy.  “There are complexities and sensitivities when you move from the question of sexuality to the question of gender,” he said, adding that “I don’t think it’s reasonable for kids to be deemed so-called ‘Gillick competent’ to take decisions about their gender or irreversible decisions that they make have.  I think there should be parental involvement at the very least.”

A few days later, Iain Anderson, then the Government’s LGBT+ and Business Champion, resigned – citing the Government’s  “profoundly shocking” position on trans conversion therapy.  He is now Stonewall’s Chair of Trustees.  A conference intended to showcase the Government’s commitment to LGBT rights was cancelled after campaigners pulled out.

Then came the fall of Johnson and a Conservative leadership election. Iain Duncan Smith, a Truss supporter, said of the plan to ban conversion therapy: “I hate it…I think when you start banning things like this you enter a maze of problems. And I absolutely believe that Liz is very much there.”  But Freer, now another Truss supporter, said that she supported a fully inclusive conversion therapy ban: “I have check with the team and Liz’s views have not changed. Mr Duncan Smith was wrong.”

Which takes us to the resignation of Truss, the election of Rishi Sunak – and a recent amendment to the Online Safety Bill tabled by Alicia Kearns to ban the advertising and promotion of conversion therapy to under 18s.  Ministers made Kearns an offer if she would withdraw her amendment which she has accepted.

The Government is now promising a draft Bill “to set out a proposed approach to ban conversion practices” in England and Wales, which will “protect everyone, including those targeted on the basis of their sexuality, or being transgender”.  “The Government will publish the draft Bill shortly and will ask for pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee in this parliamentary session”.

“This legislation must not, through a lack of clarity, harm the growing number of children and young adults experiencing gender related distress, through inadvertently criminalising or chilling legitimate conversations parents or clinicians may have with their children.”

This draft Bill won’t, of course, be Michelle Donelan’s business – since it will be entirely separate from her Online Safety Bill.  Badenoch will be the Minister in charge.  And this morning, the Daily Telegraph reports that she, who may or may not have had responsibility for this business in 2021, depending on which page of the Government’s website one believes, has written to Conservative MPs to express her concerns about the legislation “in a highly unusual move”.

Will she be permitted to explain these to the rest of the British people?  I ask because she has been absent from the studios or airwaves over a connected matter – the Government’s movement of Section 35 of the Scotland Act in relation to the Scottish Government’s Bill to approve trans self-ID.

In a sense, that isn’t surprising. “The more you see Kemi out and about, the more the Government will be focusing on the self-ID issue. And the more you see Alister, the more it will be focusing on the constitutional one”, I was told last weekend and reported on Monday.  Mind you, these two facets are intertwined – which is why Badenoch wrote to Nicola Sturgeon last year to warn her that trans self-ID in Scotland would breach the UK-wide Equality Act.

At any rate, there are consequences for Sunak in having other Ministers offering a view on these issues if they aren’t in charge of them.  Yesterday, Gillian Keegan said that she favours self-ID for 16-18 year olds nationwide – so putting her in more pro-trans position, to use a crude shorthand, than Keir Starmer, who expressed the contrary view last weekend.

“I’ve listened to you for an hour and I’m none wiser,” a judge once said to F.E Smith. “None the wiser, perhaps, my lord – but certainly better informed,” he replied.  I apologise to readers if they are in the same position after following this tale of commitment, ambiguity, hesitation, change, reversal – and confusion.  Near the heart of it is a question: what is conversion therapy, anyway?

Stonewall explains that the phrase comes from a report to the UN Human Rights Council (which currently includes such oustanding practitioners of the genre as Cuba, Qatar and Pakistan).  But the Government’s statement about its own proposal is effectively asking whether a parent questioning a teenager could face a prison sentence – and should.

“Should Sunak unleash Kemi Badenoch?” the Spectator asked last week, in the context of trans self-ID in Scotland.  But far from being loosed, she appears to be, at least as I write, in her office communicating unhappiness to Tory MPs about legislation for which she will herself be responsible.  If she is being leashed, to borrow Fraser Nelson’s image, who exactly is leashing her?  I don’t know about you, but I struggle to imagine the combative Badenoch being constrained by anyone or anything.

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