Pest-minister 2.0: Westminster rocked by new wave of allegations

Palace of government at centre of fresh misogyny and sexual harassment claims once again

The Palace of Westminster pictured at night
Westminster has been hit scores of sexual harassment allegations in recent years
(Image credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Five years have passed since The Sun exposed a Westminster sex scandal that became know as “Pest-minster”. But following seven days of newly reported misogyny and harassment claims, commentators are asking whether anything has changed in the seat of government.

According to Politico’s London Playbook, “WhatsApp groups in Westminster are buzzing with talk about the latest wave of sexual misconduct allegations in Parliament”.

In just seven days, Angela Rayner was the target of a Basic Instinct slur; a Tory MP resigned after being convicted of child sexual assault; more than 50 MPs were revealed to be facing sexual misconduct complaints; and Conservative backbencher Neil Parish was named as the MP alleged to have watched pornography on his phone in the Commons.

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Parliamentary pervert

The identity of the male MP accused of watching porn in the Commons quickly became “the scoop” everyone wanted, said Politico. But it was The Telegraph that got there first this afternoon.

Parish, the Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton since 2010, has now been suspended from the parliamentary party and is under investigation by parliament’s standards commissioner. He referred himself for investigation, the party said in a statement.

Conservative chief whip Chris Heaton-Harris had “chosen not to immediately discipline” or name the porn-watching politician, despite “two female Tory MPs making the accusation” on Tuesday, The Telegraph reported.

Instead, he said that investigating the claims would be left up to the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) – set up in 2018 following The Sun’s Pest-minster reports – “a process which can last for years”.

Caroline Nokes, the Tory chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, told PoliticsHome that the decision to refer the allegations to the parliamentary watchdog amounted to “kicking it into long grass”.

“I thought I would wake up on Wednesday morning to find somebody had had the whip withdrawn, and that didn’t happen,” she said. “We’ve seen the whip withdrawn from colleagues for a variety of reasons over the years.

“I thought this seemed to be fairly straightforward. It was raised by one colleague, it was corroborated by another. That seems to me perfectly enough to withdraw the whip.”

Sexual misconduct

The porn allegations surfaced two days after The Sunday Times revealed that 56 MPs – equivalent to 9% of the UK’s members of Parliament – were facing probes over sexual misconduct by the watchdog. The paper’s political editor Caroline Wheeler reported that three were in the cabinet and two were shadow cabinet ministers.

The various allegations included “making sexually inappropriate comments and more serious wrongdoing”, she wrote. At least one “is believed to involve criminality and concerns an allegation than an MP bribed a member of staff in return for sexual favours”.

The Tory party is already reeling from the recent loss of an MP over criminal behaviour. Imran Ahmad Khan resigned from his Wakefield constituency last Friday after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy in 2008.

And the party removed the whip from David Warburton, the Conservative MP for Somerton and Frome, earlier this month pending an investigation into allegations against him of sexual assault and drug abuse.

Jess Phillips, Labour’s shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding, told The Times that the high number of MPs facing allegations of sexual misconduct was “harrowing”, adding: “There continues to be a serious power imbalance in Westminster.”

Institutional problem

The deluge of misogyny and harassment complaints has prompted questions about “what the hell is wrong with Westminster”, said Politico’s UK correspondent Esther Webber.

Once again, “the spotlight ”has been turned on “the worst behaviour” in the UK’s corridors of power. “Even by the standards of the British parliament, which is used to its fair share of scandal, it has been a grim fortnight,” Webber added.

Amid claims ranging “from alleged criminal offences to sexist comments and jokes”, “a dozen MPs, activists and staff members” reportedly warned Politico that “an effort which Parliament has never before managed to summon is needed if things are to get better”.

According to Channel 4 News anchor Cathy Newman, “Westminster is awash with alcohol, egos and driven, ambitious people”, creating a culture that is “not conducive to a respectful environment”.

Repeating the words of a source who spoke to her during a 2014 probe into misconduct, Newman said that “sexual harassment and the abuse of power is really part of the fabric”.

“How little has changed,” she added, in an article for The Independent.

The “events of the last few days offer confirmation that Westminster is simply a mirror of society at large”, Newman continued. “But the suspicion remains that both the conduct and the punishments meted out don’t bear flattering comparison with the real world.”

Perhaps the most “depressing” thing about the new flood of allegations is that “none of this comes as any real surprise”, said Ayesha Hazarika, a former adviser to Ed Miliband, on the i news site.

“I worked in Westminster for almost 20 years and while I loved much of the experience, there was also an unpleasant side to it,” she wrote. “Almost every female adviser, staffer or MP will have their own story.”

Five years on from Westminster’s “#MeToo moment”, power still lies with “an elite group” of “senior MPs, advisers, donors, media barons, editors and commentators who are male, older, white, traditional, and socially conservative”.

They “rule the roost”, Hazarika said. “And until they send out a signal that society and politics needs to change”, we are “going to have a lot of wankers in Parliament”.

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