The Palace of Pestminster faces up to accusations of sexual predation
IT WAS only a matter of time before Hurricane Harvey reached the Palace of Westminster. The Weinstein storm has ripped through a succession of institutions that combine male power with blurred lines between professional and social life. Few institutions combine these two things quite as explosively as the Houses of Parliament.
Now it has struck with a vengeance, shaking Brexit off the front pages and even raising questions about the future of the government. Sir Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, has resigned on the grounds that his past personal conduct has “fallen below the high standards that we require of the armed forces”. A senior civil servant is conducting an inquiry into the conduct of two other ministers: Damian Green, the deputy prime minister, who denies accusations that he made unwanted advances to a woman 30 years his junior, and Mark Garnier, a trade minister, who nicknamed his assistant “sugar tits” and dispatched her to buy sex toys. Unnamed people in politics are accused of far worse. Bex Bailey, a
Labour activist, has said that she was raped by a “party figure” and then discouraged from reporting it by Labour apparatchiks. The Westminster gossip mill, never idle even at the quietest of times, is whirring madly, aided by leaked party dossiers on MPs, insinuating photographs in newspapers and snippets from private WhatsApp groups.
The revelations are destabilising an already wobbly government. Sir Michael was one of its most experienced figures. He provided ballast against political storms and a bridge between ideologues on both sides of the Brexit divide. Based on what was known at the time of his resignation, his departure has lowered the bar for career-ending conduct. It has also reinforced the sense that the government is at the mercy of events that it cannot control: future revelations could force more ministers to resign or compel the government to withdraw the whip from erring MPs. The focus is now on Mr Green, Theresa May’s oldest friend in politics and another emollient figure who has provided political sense in a cabinet that is lacking it.
The scandal raises broader issues about how women are treated in British politics. Parliament has all the characteristics of other male-dominated institutions in spades: family-hostile (and bachelor-friendly) hours, pack behaviour, a culture of drinking. No women sat in Parliament until 1919; as recently as 1997 they made up less than 10% of MPs. When Margaret Thatcher got into the cabinet in 1970 she was only the sixth woman to rise so high.
Politics is also a peculiar business. Social functions and political functions are fused. Campaigns are all-consuming. Pressing the flesh is a way of life. MPs have enormous power over whom they hire, but little guidance in how to manage them. They are not just representatives of the public but businesspeople who run their own offices. MPs who are not lucky enough to have London seats have no choice but to live double lives, spending their weekends in their constituencies and their weeks in the capital. They live double lives in another way, too, arriving in Westminster thinking that they might be the next Winston Churchill or Nye Bevan, but ending up as lobby fodder. The combination of loneliness and frustrated ambition, vanity and disappointment, encourages aberrant behaviour.
Erring MPs are accountable to their parties rather than to more formal bureaucratic structures. And parties have every incentive to keep secret any information that reflects badly on them, since exposing it could cause a scandal or a by-election. Parties can also use such information to keep their MPs in line. Whips’ offices maintain “black books” of their own MPs’ secrets, to dangle over members threatening to rebel.
There is still a question as to how widespread the most serious offences are. Rumours ranging from consensual affairs, to unspecified “inappropriateness”, to serious sexual assaults have been unhelpfully lumped together. Some of the MPs accused of inappropriate behaviour have said they fear a witch hunt that will blur the distinction between facts and gossip, affairs and transgressions, and misjudged passes and coercion. Yet there is a difference between keeping a clear head and downplaying the scandals. Parliament is grappling with two problems: a cultural one of how women are treated in political life and a criminal one of sexual assault. But these two problems can blur into each other. MPs are more likely to abuse their power over their subordinates if they operate in a world of casual sexist banter.
A blast of fresh air
MPs already have a net trust rating of -74%. The latest revelations may entrench contempt for politicians, encouraging the harmful populist rage against “the establishment” and discouraging talented people from working in the Pestminster swamp. Yet this week also gave some cause for optimism. The debate has highlighted how far women have advanced in recent years. They now make up a third of MPs and run three of the four countries of the United Kingdom. Digital forums such as WhatsApp give them tools to share their experiences privately and organise resistance. Parliament’s debate on sexual harassment on October 30th was notable for its maturity and good sense. John Bercow, the speaker, Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the House, and Harriet Harman, Labour’s representative, promised to tackle the problem swiftly. They also demonstrated that they recognise how doing so means addressing attitudes as well as setting up complaints systems.
The MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009 diminished Parliament’s reputation because MPs collectively failed to deal with the problem quickly and convincingly. There is a chance that, if properly handled, the sexual-harassment scandal could help clean up behaviour in Parliament, improve its reputation and persuade more young people, particularly women, to make a career in politics. Some hurricanes wreak a creative kind of destruction.