We had the Piety Olympics down at ‘Sexminster’. That nickname suggests our legislature is a dungeon of bacchanalian revels, squalid, whiplashed oglers in leather gimp masks being sketched by a modern Hogarth.
Yet when Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom spoke to the House about harassment accusations yesterday, MPs strained to outdo one another in the purity of their thoughts and in their devotion to chastity, consideration and the strictures of that modern clerisy, the Human Resources profession.
More training! More HR wallahs to oversee interviews when youths apply for jobs from goosey-digit MPs! There were calls for another independent body to oversee grievance procedures, more counselling, best practice etc, etc. It won’t be cheap and we’ll be paying.
The vortex of anguish continued for more than an hour. Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn were in attendance.
Commons speaker John Bercow makes a statement to MPs in the House of Commons yesterday
The session began with Speaker Bercow – that beacon of benevolence in all his employment habits – giving a long statement, overly theatrical. There was a lot of Speaker in it. Let me through. I’m a martinet keen to treat everyone with ‘dignity, courtesy and respect’. So gripped did the little goblin become by his own sanctity that one hand departed from his text and started to gesticulate. Here was a maestro conducting himself. A little more tremolo from the bass section, please. More moistness from you strings in the larynx.
‘I am happy to do whatever I can,’ said Bercow, and Larry Olivier himself could barely have done it with more tragic gravy.
Harriet Harman (Lab, Camberwell & Peckham) got first dibs, having presumably been quickest to the Speaker’s Office with an urgent question. One hears Hon Members were almost sprinting to Speaker’s House to submit their bids, like drivers at the start of a Le Mans race in the old days. Le Mans. Now there’s a place that needs to change its name sharp if it knows what’s good for it.
Pukka Miss Harman, to her credit, knew where to place the emphasis on the word ‘harassment’. Others gave it the Frank Spencer treatment, stressing the second syllable. Soon after Miss Harman finished talking, Speaker Bercow sprang to his feet to marvel that she had recently completed 35 years in the Commons. Mrs Leadsom said the Cabinet Office was ‘urgently investigating allegations of misconduct’. Parliament ‘must take action in days, not weeks’.
The last time they rushed into this sort of thing, they ended up with IPSA, the parliamentary expenses overseer which has proved expensive and unwieldy. Michael Fabricant (Con, Lichfield) stressed the importance of allegations being substantiated.
Harriet Harman MP asks a question about allegations of inappropriate and unwanted sexual behaviour at Westminster in the Commons yesterday
Labour frontbencher Valerie Vaz gave us a homily about ‘appropriate safeguarding policies’ and not using naughty words based on people’s private bits. Of her brother Keith (Lab, Leicester E), there was no sign. Busy inspecting washing-machine hoses? Mrs Leadsom said erring MPs could lose their party affiliations and, if ministers, could be sacked from the Government. Mrs May, beside her, did not demur.
Mr Corbyn was doing a lot of nodding until Esther McVey (Con, Tatton) said any definition of abuse should include politicians who called for MPs to be lynched. This was a dig at absent Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, who once called Miss McVey ‘a stain on humanity’ and quoted a Labour activist who asked ‘why aren’t we lynching the bastard?’ (i.e. Miss McVey).
Mrs Leadsom agreed that such behaviour was ‘incredibly despicable’. By now Mr Corbyn was muttering like Muttley the dog.
Peter Heaton-Jones (Con, N Devon), once of the BBC, said ‘robust governance procedures’ were more important than individual judgment. Tim Loughton (Con, E Worthing & Shoreham) thought the Commons could ‘send a message to the rest of society’. He may not realise that many people hardly give the place a moment’s thought.
Matthew Offord (Con, Hendon) was interesting. He said abuse could take the form of MPs bullying their staff. An unhappy employee had described a male MP as ‘utterly foul’ and guilty of ‘a pattern of behaviour’. Who could he have meant?