Sex pests in politics
A toxic culture in the Commons
“Someone once joked that politics is ‘show business for ugly people’,” said the Labour MP John Mann in The Mail on Sunday. So it should come as no surprise that, after the Harvey Weinstein revelations in Hollywood, Westminster should be next. Parliament, like Hollywood, is a highpressure environment in which powerful individuals at the top can prey on, harass or humiliate their juniors. Last week, for example, the trade minister Mark Garnier admitted to having sent a secretary into a sex shop to buy two vibrators (one for his wife and one for a female worker in his constituency office) while he waited outside. It was, he insisted, just “goodhumoured high jinks”. He also admitted to having once called the same woman “sugar tits” in a bar, but said it was part of an “amusing conversation” about Gavin & Stacey. Former Cabinet minister Stephen Crabb, meanwhile, admitted to having “sexted” a 19-year-old he had interviewed (and rejected) for a job.
The floodgates have opened, said The Times. This week, a Labour activist went public with allegations that Labour officials urged her not to report a rape. Bex Bailey says she was attacked at a Labour event in 2011, but was discouraged from going to the police. At least six Cabinet ministers were this week rumoured to feature on a spreadsheet of Tory MPS accused of sexual harassment or misconduct known as the “dirty dossier”. The allegations, which have not been verified, range from extramarital affairs to being “handsy in taxis”, and harassing researchers to paying for prostitutes. A Labour-affiliated organisation, Labour Too, has begun compiling similar complaints against MPS on the opposition benches. Women at Westminster have created a Whatsapp group to warn each other about serial sex pests, while others have started making off-the-record allegations to the press. They said that one former Tory minister was famously not safe to share a lift with, and that he was once overheard asking his secretary to “come and feel the length of my dick”.
The Commons on Monday was a “vortex of anguish”, said Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail, as MPS of all parties “strained to outdo one another” in outraged sanctimony. Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom called on Parliament to “take action in days, not weeks”. There were calls for a new independent body to oversee grievance procedures, and “HR wallahs” to sit in on job interviews with “goosey-digit MPS”. Speaker John Bercow gave a theatrical speech in which he pledged in a quavering voice to “do whatever I can”. “Larry Olivier himself could barely have done it with more tragic gravy.” But all these words will do precisely nothing to “fix the systemic culture of abuse and harassment that exists in Westminster”, said Sam Bacon in the New Statesman. The essential problem is this: “all MPS are essentially their own self-employed businesses”. They hire and manage their own staff, without external oversight. This leaves abused staff with no one to turn to. “The boss that harasses them is the line manager they are supposed to report bullying and harassment to.”
They certainly can’t expect any help from the party whips, said Matthew Norman in The Independent. Although the whips make it their business to know everyone’s misdeeds, their motive is not to protect vulnerable staff. Rather, they use the information as leverage to ensure that MPS toe the party line. The whole system is “designed to hide misdemeanours and use them later for political gain”. This collusion goes right to the top: Theresa May gets a weekly briefing on her MPS’ peccadilloes (known to whips as “the ins and outs stuff”). According to one aide, “Theresa just sits there and doesn’t say much. On one occasion she said, ‘Why can’t they just do their job?’” But however unamused the vicar’s daughter may be, there isn’t much she can do. So fragile is her “tottering Government” that if she were to sack MPS for sexual harassment, she could lose her majority and bring it crashing down.
“Will sexual harassment be to this government what the expenses scandal was to New Labour?” I have my doubts, said Stephen Bush in the New Statesman. Unlike the dodgy expenses claims, these allegations are so far unproven. Moreover, the behaviours described in the so-called dirty dossier vary wildly, from serious wrongdoing to strange but consensual activities (one MP is on the list for having been urinated on by three men), and includes respectable relationships between MPS (Amber Rudd having dated Kwasi Kwarteng, for example). This muddying of the waters makes it easier to dismiss the whole issue as an overreaction. There is a chance that it will just “fizzle out”.
“All these words will do nothing to fix the systemic culture of abuse that exists at Westminster”
Mark Garnier: “good-humoured high jinks”?