The Westminster Sexual Harassment Scandal That Wasn’t

British politics, from the outside looking in, appears decorous and bland. Steeped in archaic tradition, it can seem almost quaint, with displays of partisan animosity reserved for the theatre of Prime Minister’s Questions, and everyone in Parliament addressing each other with superficial politeness, never omitting the correct honorifics.

This view is not accurate, of course. Politics is an unpleasant business. Politicians live in fear and band together less out of common loves than shared hatreds. The machinery of politics demands it.

As in any system of government, some powerful people attempt to get away with what they can. Their covert misdemeanours may include financial corruption or physical aggression. More common than both is an undercurrent of sexual impropriety, which hangs over Westminster, as it seems to overhang so many political cultures.

In Westminster, this impropriety does not just take the form of widespread infidelity, which is common enough in the wider world to be explained away in politics. Parliament is long recognized to be a place where normal rules about sexual harassment and even sexual assault carry less weight, and where politicians can get away with far more than voters know or imagine.

The traditions of the place and the rarefied nature of Parliament, baffling to outsiders, no doubt add to this culture. They signal to members of a certain class that Westminster is a place for them; that they are among understanding friends and comrades; that they will be protected even if they stray from accepted morality.

Parliament perpetually teeters on the edge of a sexual harassment scandal. After the recent allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, and the sea change these appear to have brought about, it seemed that bad behaviour of this sort will no longer be tolerated – in politics and in culture.

Scandal appeared on the horizon. It threatened to result in a deluge of allegations of sexual harassment and worse, the likes of which Parliament had never seen.

Over the course of a few days last year, a Labour Member of Parliament, Jared O’Mara, was suspended for homophobic and sexist posts on a music forum. This was exacerbated by reports that he had behaved unacceptably towards women in person. A junior Tory minister, Mark Garnier, was named by a Sunday paper as having had his secretary buy him sex toys, among other potentially insensitive assignments.

Both of these seemed tame compared to what was alleged of others.

An unredacted spreadsheet detailing Conservative MPs’ misdemeanours, purportedly compiled by parliamentary researchers, did the rounds. On the version I saw, there were 40 names listed, with other MPs linked by implication and overt connection.

This spreadsheet was widely circulated and widely discussed. Some of what it alleged was serious. Why, then, was there no great scandal? Why did Westminster escape its #MeToo moment?

Members of Parliament were accused, in the chosen euphemism, of being ‘inappropriate’ with members of their staff, journalists, and other MPs. Others are listed as being ‘handsy’, some as instituting injunctions and non-disclosure agreements, and one as having forced a former researcher, whom he is alleged to have impregnated, to get an abortion.

But the spreadsheet was also full of unsubstantiated gossip and itemized dissections of entirely consensual behaviour, behaviour that appeared to have been catalogued out of little more than prurience.

And though the people named in the document found themselves under intense scrutiny from journalists, many of them came out fighting. Some of them, like Dominic Raab, a minister, issued strenuous denials of what was said to have taken place.

More generally, parliamentary culture is lamented but accepted.

This aspect of the culture of Westminster received something of an examination in a 2014 piece in The Spectator about how young blond men can fall victim to MPs’ roving hands. There are many parliamentary staff, the majority of them women, who have experienced similar or worse.

But such things are known. There has been no outpouring of accusations followed by mass punishment.

More specific stories emerged since the spreadsheet appeared.

Sir Michael Fallon, who was accused touching a female journalist’s knee and making a crass remark about her, resigned as secretary of state for defence. Fallon admitted his past behaviour may have, in his words, ‘fallen short’.

Campaigners may perhaps have expected Fallon to be the first among many.

But around the same time, when Kate Maltby – an academic, theatre critic and former Conservative activist – published a first-hand account of an incident with a now-former cabinet minister, Damian Green, in the London Times, the only result was a brief media circus.

Green later resigned, but not for this. His resignation was required after Green breaching the ministerial code by lying about the existence of pornography on one of his work computers. The resignation was elicited on a technicality, following a trivial story which had existed in the background for nearly a decade. It got nowhere close to the heart of things.

When a former Labour party activist, Bex Bailey, accused another member of rape and alleged that others in the party told her not to report the incident, her story was widely reported. But that seemed to be it. Labour appointed someone to investigate matters. That was seven months ago.

It is alleged that politicians and political activists in positions of power have acted to exploit, harass, and assault seemingly with impunity. But though some have lost their jobs and others been suspended by their parties while a variety of allegations are investigated, the waited-for wave did not arrive.

It would be counterproductive and unreal to imagine some grand cover-up.

Such a suggestion was made about another potential sexual scandal, which alleged that Westminster contained a clique who raped and abused children, whose crimes were systematically hushed up by those in power.

The story of a ‘Westminster paedophile ring’ has since been comprehensively discredited. The accuser, identified as ‘Nick’ for legal reasons, now faces criminal charges of his own. That debacle likely devalued the testimony of others alleging sexual impropriety in politicians.

Another case, that of Carl Sargeant, a minister in the devolved Welsh government, changed the nature of the scandal and served as a cautionary tale. Sargeant was alleged to have engaged in inappropriate behaviour and was removed from his ministerial position. A few days later, he died, in an apparent suicide.

The shock of this event and the outpouring of effusive tributes which Sargeant garnered in death effectively put an end to the matter. Accepted wisdom held that he should not have been treated in this way.

Now, when allegations are made, MPs are still suspended pending internal party inquiries. Most recently, John Woodcock, formerly a Labour MP, had the party whip withdrawn to allow for such an investigation. But all this occurs as a sideshow.

The necessary discussion about the excesses and impropriety of British politics was first diluted with innuendo, then trivialized by comparison, and finally derailed by unforeseen tragedy.

Now there will be no cleaning house. Rumours will still circulate; gossip will be gathered and traded. But the promise of a sincere evaluation of parliament’s pests and predators seems further off than anyone watching the horizon last year could have thought possible.

This piece was originally published at Arc Digital.

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