The Westminster Sexual Harassment Scandal, Put Simply


By Campaign Agent Matthew Waterfield

Less than a month ago, The New York Times reported allegations that film mogul Harvey Weinstein had paid settlements to multiple women whom he had sexually harassed. That report triggered a chain of events in Hollywood, which led to many household names such as Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman being accused of sexual abuse and misconduct.

With the #MeToo campaign encouraging women to speak up about their experiences of sexual harassment, the scandal soon reached the European Parliament, with reports of MEPs groping their assistants and harassing young staffers. It was clear that the scandal was soon to hit Westminster, beginning with The Sun using “Be afraid… be very afraid” as its front-page headline on 26 October, just before the revelations began.

Claims against Conservative MPs

The scene was already set for a scandal regarding MPs’ treatment of women, as Labour MP Jared O’Mara had been suspended the day beforehand, following an investigation by the Guido Fawkes website on the comments O’Mara had made online before becoming an MP. Although he’d also made racist and homophobic slurs, attention was focussed on his derogatory comments towards women, with his description of Arctic Monkeys’ fans as “sexy little slags” widely seen as the final nail in his coffin.

However, when the main scandal finally broke, it was Conservative MPs facing the lion’s share of the accusations. On 29 October, the Mail on Sunday published allegations that Trade minister Mark Garnier had called his secretary “sugar tits” and got her to buy sex toys. It was also revealed by The Telegraph that former cabinet minister Stephen Crabb had sent sexually explicit messages to a 19-year-old woman who had applied for a job in his office.

From then on, there was a deluge of complaints against Conservative MPs. A list was drawn up by party staffers, detailing a list of accusations against MPs, which was then leaked to media outlets, published initially with names redacted. As of yet, any unredacted copies remain unverified.

This list has been the centre of attention for several days now and has also come under harsh criticism from many. Although there are many MPs on there accused of sexual abuse or harassment, there are others on there for behaviour unrelated to misconduct. For example, Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, is on the list simply for being in a relationship with a fellow MP, despite the fact that it is a consensual relationship and both are single. Out of the 40 MPs listed, 13 of them are named on the list for being in consensual relationships, for their sexual preferences or for matters unrelated to sex. Others on the list, such as Rory Stewart and Dominic Raab, have denied the allegations against them (and in Stewart’s case his supposed victim has also publicly stated that the allegation is false).

However, there are many more serious allegations on the list, with several MPs being referred to as “handsy” or “inappropriate with researchers”. Damian Green, Theresa May’s deputy, was top of the list and has been accused by journalist Kate Maltby of touching her knee as well as sending her an inappropriate message. It was later claimed by Bob Quick, a former police chief, that hardcore pornography was found on Green’s parliamentary computer after it was seized back in 2008. He is now subject to a Whitehall investigation regarding his conduct, though he strenuously denies Maltby’s claim that he touched her, as well as Quick’s allegation.

Another serious case is that of Charlie Elphicke, the MP for Dover. He had the Conservative whip withdrawn after “serious allegations” against him were passed on to the police on 3 November. However, he later tweeted that the party had informed the press of his suspension before him and that he was still unaware of what he was actually being accused of.

The list also stated that Chris Pincher, at the time a Senior Whip, was guilty of “inappropriate” behaviour. It later emerged that he had made unwanted passes at both Alex Story, a prominent Conservative activist, and Tom Blenkinsop, a former Labour MP. Following the publication of these allegations, Pincher resigned from the Whips Office and referred himself to both the police and the Conservative Party’s disciplinary system.

By the beginning of November, more names from the list were emerging, but there were few calls for the resignations or suspensions of Conservative MPs (with the exception of Garnier and Crabb). Then things took an unexpected turn; Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, resigned.

Fallon had already admitted to repeatedly touching journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer’s knee back in 2002. However, Hartley-Brewer’s insistence that she was not a victim and that she found the incident “mildly amusing”, meant that the fallout had been limited, and Fallon had survived more or less unscathed. It was only when Fallon was unable to promise the Prime Minister that no similar accusations would emerge, he decided to offer her his resignation.

This decision has had two significant impacts. For one thing, it has increased pressure on Damian Green to step down – the circumstances of Fallon’s resignation seem to be setting the bar for resignation low, with people arguing that Green’s conduct was as bad as Fallon’s and as a result he should also step down. However, since further allegations regarding Fallon’s behaviour towards Andrea Leadsom and Jane Merrick emerged, it’s become apparent that Fallon’s conduct was worse than first thought.

Secondly, and more importantly, it has also led to a reshuffle, which could have a longer term impact on Theresa May. She decided to replace Fallon with Gavin Williamson, the Chief Whip, who was then himself replaced by Julian Smith, who’d been the Deputy Chief Whip.

This “precision reshuffle” has been more controversial than people imagined it would be. While most expected May to select an ex-soldier, such as Penny Mordaunt or Tobias Ellwood, the appointment of Williamson has led to accusations that the Chief Whip may have suggested himself as a suitable fit for the role in Machiavellian fashion.

Besides the poor reaction from Conservative MPs to her nomination, many see May as unwise for moving Williamson (seen as a very effective operator) away from the Whips Office at a time when his talents are more in demand than ever. Whilst claims that the scandal will bring down the government seem premature at best, it’s possible that it may be more politically harmful than first thought.

Claims against Labour MPs

All of the above summarises how allegations have affected the Conservatives, but it has also considerably perturbed the Labour Party. Although it is mainly Conservative MPs who are finding themselves on the front pages of newspapers, the scandal is afflicting the Labour Party as well – albeit mainly behind closed doors.

John Mann, the Labour MP for Bassetlaw, has stated on multiple occasions that there have been instances where Labour MPs have sexually assaulted or harassed people, but he has not named the MPs concerned. It is publicly known that three Labour MPs have been accused of sexual assault, with two other party activists being accused of rape and other individuals, including a senior member of the NEC, accused of sexual harassment. However, at the moment, only a few allegations are public.

The claim to be made public was one of the most serious incidents – former NEC member Bex Bailey revealed that she was raped at a Labour Party event and, when she reported it to a senior official, she was told not to report it in case it caused “damage” to her career.

Allegations were then made against both Ivan Lewis and Clive Lewis, though each individual has been handled differently. Labour announced that the claims against the former had already been resolved and that there’d be no investigation, whereas the latter, accused of groping a woman at this year’s Labour Party conference, is now being investigated by the party, amid calls for him to be suspended.

However, the most serious case of all concerns Carl Sargeant, the AM for Alyn and Deeside. He was sacked from his position in the Welsh Government following allegations regarding his behaviour, after which he released a statement saying he hadn’t yet been made aware of the nature of the claims. On 7 November, he was found dead at his home, in what is assumed to be a suicide. His death was followed by calls for due process to be followed in the course of this scandal, amid claims that a “guilty until proved innocent” mentality has been adopted by many.

The other parties

As far as other parties are concerned, the scandal has left no-one unscathed. An SNP minister resigned after making offensive remarks to a woman, with another activist being investigated by the party.

A former Lib Dem PPC revealed that a party official insisted she go out and canvass with a man even after she informed them he’d touched her thigh; the party has also been accused of ‘hushing up’ a rape allegation against one of their members, made by a fellow activist.

However, this is a scandal that mainly revolves around Britain’s two biggest political parties. The consequences have already been serious, with senior cabinet ministers resigning and MPs being suspended by their parties, and even the loss of a life, but there is likely more to come.

Sources and Further Reading

Image: John Simm @ Flickr


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