Great Britain

Does parliament really want to be a squalid haven for those who abuse power? | Catherine Bennett

With Johnsonism no longer a matter for speculation but ever more clearly definable as an expression of the prime minister’s needs and impulses, it was merely a question of time before we saw its impact on sexual politics.

Clarifying his views on acceptable conduct beyond what is already observable, Boris Johnson has confirmed that the unnamed former minister arrested on suspicion of serious sexual misconduct will, unlike Julian Lewis, the MP immediately evicted for challenging Chris Grayling, retain the Conservative whip.

If this does not represent a definitive statement that principled behaviour is a more serious offence within Johnson’s party than an allegation of serious sexual assault, his list of new peers had already confirmed that his indifference to possible abuses of power extends far beyond simple nepotism. The surge of contempt for Johnson’s promotion of his own brother, with other beneficiaries including the ludicrous son of a KGB spy, perhaps obscured a similar honour for the former Labour shadow minister John Woodcock.

Woodcock lost the Labour whip in 2018, pending an investigation into a complaint about allegedly unwelcome text messages to a former aide. Since that investigation was never completed, after Woodcock denied misconduct and quit the party, his 800 or so new colleagues will have to decide for themselves how much of a reputational asset Woodcock represents. Or they would if their place of work had a reputation to lose. To his credit, Woodcock has said he would welcome an independent inquiry; meanwhile, this promotion precedes – or replaces – resolution of the complaint, one way or the other.

It might, admittedly, seem unfair if his Tory co-peers were to hold accusations of inappropriateness against Woodcock, when their own leader last year survived recollections by the respected journalist Charlotte Edwardes that he had groped her and another woman at a Spectator lunch. This seems to have occurred shortly before Johnson began an affair with a junior colleague that he subsequently, as an MP, dismissed as an “inverted pyramid of piffle”. He was then sacked, as we know, for lying.

If Johnson’s fatness, or otherwise, dictates national policy on obesity, if his pathological libertarianism is understood – by him – to represent the mentality of a reasonable citizen, it has been natural to wonder not if, but to what extent, Johnson would allow himself to become an inspiration to all fat, married, middle-aged men dreaming of sexual reawakening via a lowlier, younger colleague. The ideal being something along the lines of Johnson’s latest relationship, with a woman 24 years his junior, presumably forged somewhere between the Foreign Office, his marital home and Conservative HQ; one that hagiographic reporting plus a dog and baby has pretty much normalised into the kind of thing that could happen to any respected politician with a never-specified number of dependents. Other slogans may come and go but Johnson’s lasting message will surely be: stay erect, forget the children, dump wives.

Not satisfied with his symbolic role as shagger in chief, Johnson, in defying demands that the unnamed arrested MP be relieved, pending investigation, of his parliamentary duties, is effectively reversing one of his party’s very few identifiable advances towards acceptable conduct. In 2017, Charlie Elphicke was suspended the day his party passed on “serious allegations” to the police. His evidently mistaken reinstatement in 2018, along with that of the former minister Andrew Griffiths (sender of thousands of sexually explicit texts), amounted to a formal declaration that in Westminster the alleged perpetrator still comes first.

Reports that a cabinet minister lobbied on Elphicke’s behalf also suggest that two official investigations into misconduct in parliament have been ignored by the very people they were written for. Two months before Elphicke and Griffiths were readmitted, Dame Laura Cox published her inquiry, which found “a culture, cascading from the top down, of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence, in which bullying, harassment and sexual harassment have been able to thrive and have long been tolerated and concealed”.

The party’s protection of the unnamed accused MP follows a second inquiry, by Gemma White, which detailed unwelcome advances including “breasts being grabbed, buttocks being slapped, thighs being stroked and crotches being pressed/rubbed against bodies”. You wonder, with the Epstein facilities now closed down, if there is anywhere more inviting for a committed groper or superficially respectable sexual predator than the UK parliamentary estate, where even supposed enforcers of standards, the whips, have a professional interest in concealment. Or, it follows, a workplace more hazardous for junior, in-house prey, for whom reporting unwanted approaches would amount, White learned, to “career suicide”.

Now, unless Johnson’s mind is changed by that famous “diversity of thought” that, Matt Hancock has discovered, renders non-Hancock-like politicians redundant, women – constituents as well as colleagues – will not know if a fiftyish MP they are in contact with is the one arrested last week following an accusation of rape.

By way of a crowning insult to the complainant and anyone concerned for safeguarding, the party depicts its sheltering of the arrested man as concern for the woman’s anonymity, which is, she has pointed out, legally enforceable.

That a refusal to suspend the whip should have developed into a technical dispute about revised parliamentary regulations, Cliff Richard and respective claims to anonymity offers, for the party, a terrific distraction from an event that confirms, maybe above all, its Westminster, even world-beating, achievements in recruiting and nurturing men who somehow end up associated with complaints of sexual impropriety.

Even when the supply seems uncertain, with Michael Fallon, Elphicke and Griffiths out, and Damian Green, Mark (“sugar tits”) Garnier and Stephen Crabb now backbenchers, here comes 40-year-old Rob Roberts MP, still not suspended despite begging a 21-year-old intern, who told him she was struggling with her mental health, to “fool around”. Meanwhile, Johnson’s generous friend, Crispin Odey, makes headlines, after being charged with indecent assault, which he firmly denies. Was ever a diverse political party more unfortunate?

• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist

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