Theresa May was warned she risked sparking a Westminster ‘witch hunt’ last night after ministers were told they could be sacked for making staff ‘feel uncomfortable’.
The Prime Minister ordered a crackdown on Parliamentary sex pests after the latest Westminster sleaze scandal threatened to spiral out of control.
Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom said Tory MPs faced being suspended from the party if unwanted sexual comments or advances were found to have made junior staff ‘feel uncomfortable’.
Theresa May, pictured yesterday, was warned she risked sparking a Westminster ‘witch hunt’ last night
Mrs Leadsom, speaking with Mrs May at her side, said ministers caught up in the scandal could be ‘fired from ministerial office’ – and the threshold for action would be behaviour ‘significantly below criminal activity’. She said new proposals, including an independent ‘grievance procedure’ and training for MPs in how to treat their staff, would be brought forward ‘within days’.
But the proposals sparked unease. One female Tory MP called for ‘perspective’, while a female Tory peer warned of creating an atmosphere that might ‘encourage’ false allegations. As the scandal threatened to engulf Westminster yesterday:
- Downing Street refused to say if Mrs May retained confidence in trade minister Mark Garnier, after claims he asked a female aide to buy sex toys;
- One Tory MP warned colleagues on a WhatsApp messaging group that the scandal could ‘bring down the Government’;
- Labour faced questions about its own conduct after frontbencher Cat Smith said she had to ‘run away’ from a sexual predator in the party;
- A Commons researcher revealed an MP had asked him to clean his kitchen in his underwear following a boozy night in a Commons bar;
- Journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer recounted a case of a Cabinet minister who repeatedly put his hand on her knee at dinner but said it was ‘absurd’ to treat the incident as serious sexual harassment;
- Mrs May was urged to investigate a secret dossier naming 36 Tory MPs as sex pests;
- The SNP confirmed it had launched two investigations into claims of sexual harassment.
Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom talking in the House of Commons yesterday
Yesterday’s crackdown followed a string of allegations that senior MPs, including members of the Cabinet, have sexually harassed junior colleagues over many years.
Sex pests in the Labour ranks
Labour faced a series of sexual harassment claims yesterday, with one MP revealing she had to push a councillor away and run when he tried to kiss her.
Cat Smith, the party’s youth affairs spokesman, said it happened when she was an activist. She told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire all parties had a ‘responsibility’ to tackle the problem, and called for Commons measures to protect interns. It came as Labour MP Rupa Huq said she was sexually harassed by an MEP in the 1990s.
Tory ex-minister Esther McVey said any system for misconduct claims should extend to ‘those MPs who go on rallies endorsing the lynching of other MPs’.
At an event three years ago, shadow chancellor John McDonnell recounted a remark in which someone said Miss McVey should be ‘lynched’ over welfare cuts.
Tory MP Nadine Dorries said it was right to draw up a proper legal basis for dealing with complaints. But she added: ‘We need to keep a perspective on this. Mediocre men behaving badly hold good women back in many workplaces across the UK, not just in Westminster.
‘We need action in terms of separating the historic and legal behaviour between consenting adults, from that which has serious grounds for complaint. My guess is, that may boil down to very little.
‘Otherwise, it turns into a witch hunt which benefits no one.’ Baroness Jenkin, a close friend of Mrs May, warned against creating an atmosphere that encouraged false allegations.
Graham Brady, chairman of the powerful 1922 committee of backbench Tory MPs, described a sense of ‘anguish’ among MPs that they could have their reputations ‘unfairly tarnished’ by the activities of a small minority. ‘Where there is wrongdoing it needs to be dealt with,’ he said, adding: ‘I think it would be a mistake to imagine that Parliament is a den of inequity.’
Labour’s former deputy leader Harriet Harman said: ‘This is not hysteria, this is something which is long overdue for all the parties in this House to deal with.’
Labour MP Tulip Siddiq said the number of incidents would ‘probably be in the hundreds’. Senior parliamentary figures have met to discuss ways for victims of sexual assault to speak up ‘without fear’. The move came after Mrs May called for a new independent helpline to deal with complaints of harassment at Westminster.
Harriet Harman MP asks a question about allegations of inappropriate and unwanted sexual behaviour at Westminster in the Commons yesterday
Commons Speaker John Bercow also called for change in Parliament amid what he described as ‘disturbing’ allegations about a ‘culture of sexual harassment’.
Mrs May has been stung by claims she ignored evidence of sexual harassment because the information was useful to Tory whips.
Yesterday it emerged that in 2014, senior Tories blocked moves designed to give staff greater protection against sexual harassment, arguing that the Conservatives should act only in line with other parties on the issue.
Clean my kitchen – in your pants
A former researcher last night claimed an MP asked him to clean his kitchen wearing just underwear following drinks in a Commons bar.
The politician ordered him to strip off and perform chores wearing almost no clothes after inviting him back to his flat when the Sports and Social club closed.
The ex-Commons assistant said: ‘After Sports and Social closed for the night, he suggested having a drink at his flat. When we got there he told me that he wanted me to clean the kitchen in my underwear. I immediately ordered an Uber and left.’
Labour MP Chi Onwurah told the Commons yesterday: ‘When I complained recently to an officer of Parliament… that I knew a number of researchers – male and female – who had been made to feel deeply uncomfortable in the Sports and Social club here by MPs, I was told that it happens in pubs all over the country.’