1. Is the media really treating these facts and claims in the same way as the expenses scandal?
Yes, Britain’s media pack is a “feral beast”. Yes, its aggression is intensified by it hunting both in alliance and competition with social media. And, yes, many publications would like to do the current claims and facts what the Daily Telegraph did to “expenses”, forcing suspensions, resignations and by-elections to boot – perhaps even the collapse of the Government. Furthermore, a media ramp like this one can acquire a momentum of its own.
However, there are signs that the pursuit is more hesitant this time round, for three reasons. First, there was a list of MPs expenses claims. Second, there was abuse of public money. Third, the media was not itself implicated.
In this instance, there is to date a list of allegations, not of facts. There is no evidence of misappropriation of public money. And some journalists can behave no better or worse than some MPs. The lack of a media ramp for Mark Garnier’s resignation is significant.
Furthermore, the issues are not always clear-cut. For example, it was doubtless “inappropriate” – to deploy that chilly word – for Michael Fallon to put his hand on a journalist’s knee. But she didn’t work for him, and Parliamentary staff are the focus of these claims. The incident took place over 15 years ago. And she does not seem to be complaining now. Perhaps this is an exploratory probe, but the story is not the stuff of which resignations are made.
2. Not all the alleged abuse is male-MP-on-female-staff
As Mark Wallace wrote over the weekend, some if true are certainly criminal (such as spiking drinks); others are arguably purely private (such as what one paper referred to as “good, honest fun with other people’s wives”, though local parties and voters might take a different view).
But many fall into a grey area that is neither. These are not necessarily connected with sex at all. They include bullying, harassment and unreasonable behaviour. Furthermore, the cast list of perpetrators and victims is mixed. There is MP-on-MP harrassment. There is male MP on female staff, presumably the most common category. There is male MP on male staff. There is a claim of a female MP harrassing male staff. There is senior staff on junior staff…
3. The accountability of MPs to their constituents, rather than to the whips and party machines, must be safeguarded
If a Minister faces claims of harassment or abuse, Theresa May must decide whether or keep or sack him. If the person in question is a Shadow Minister, Jeremy Corbyn must make the same decision. And so on.
But the Prime Minister does not appoint backbench MPs to their seats. Though the Party has the right to withdraw the whip from them, they are not the property of Downing Street or the Whips’ Office. This is why they, and not the central party machines, employ their staff.
John Bercow insinuated yesterday that the 1922 Committee previously blocked a mandatory grievance scheme for the staff of Conservative MPs, placing them at a disadvantage compared to those employed by MPs representing other parties. He was doubtless right to suggest that some MPs will be resistant some of the measures that Andrea Leadsom announced yesterday (a beefed-up helpline and mediation service, for example) – though not all of them will be Tories.
However, the Speaker, whose affection for most of his former colleagues is legendary, was not telling the full story. The 1922 Committee resisted the proposals primarily because they included severing the link between MPs and their staff.
Those staff would instead have been employed by the Conservative Party centrally. The idea will doubtless be refloated. It must be resisted at all costs. Any new corporate scheme, as suggested by the Prime Minister in her letter to the Speaker, must respect this principle.
4. May is in a less powerful position now than Cameron was at the time of expenses…
There is another “expenses” parallel. As the scandal gathered pace, the main political parties tried to hold their line of asserting that the system was solely a matter for the Commons authorities.
This didn’t and couldn’t last. David Cameron attempted to get ahead of the political game by devising a system whereby Conservative MPs would be required to pay back certain claims.
He was then Leader of the Opposition, widely expected to win a majority, and thus had room for manoeuvre. Theresa May has less.
5. …And she faces a choice. If she keeps any besieged Ministers in place, she’ll be accused of stubborness. Sack them, and she’ll be accused of panic.
She may thus find herself faced with agonising choices, if claims against some Ministers are made but not proven – or are proven, but are on the margin of what is “inappropriate”. Keep them, and she will be accused of stubborness, and having a tin ear for the voters. Sack them, and she will be charged with panicking, and offences against natural justice – not to mention risking her own standing within the Parliamentary Party.
And if she takes the latter course, there will be nothing to stop the person concerned bunging in a no confidence letter to Graham Brady. In any event, expect to hear more of that obscure document, the Ministerial Code of Conduct. You can bet that the Gavins, Barwell and Williamson, will be working on an emergency reshuffle list now, just in case it is needed.
6. Pressure for the right of recall may return, if the Government whips seek to avoid by-elections
The dismissal or resignation of Ministers will not necessarily be the end of the matter. The Government does not employ backbenches as it does Ministers, but the Conservatives have the right to withdraw the whip from them. The exposure of and apologies by backbenchers may not be enough. There will be calls for the suspension of the whip – to propel those concerned into the company of Anne-Marie Morris, who currently occupies a Parliamentary no-man’s land. There will also be demands for the suspension of MPs and for by-elections. Expect calls for the right of recall to return and redouble.
7. Watch Labour’s “Absolute Boys”
The Labour Party will do what any opposition would do in its shoes. That’s to say, it will haver between kicking up a fuss (demanding Ministerial resignations and vilifying “Tory sleaze”) and withdrawing into its shell (mindful that there will be more Jared O’Maras out there). Yesterday’s lead story was a list of 36 Conservative MPs accused of improper behaviour, but tomorrow’s may be all about Jeremy Corbyn’s party. With O’Mara, Clive Lewis’s colourful use of language and John McDonnell’s aggressive swagger, there is more than a hint of the Labour Party now being one for – how shall we put this? – “absolute boys”.
8. Will the whips be helping the police with their inquiries?
Watch out for the role of the whips’ offices. These are sometimes believed, mistakenly, to be human resources departments – concerned primarily with looking out for those in their charge. This is not so. They have somehow to square the circle of looking after colleagues with looking out for their Party’s interests, which they usually but not invariably identify with their leader’s. In particular, the Government whips will be desparate to avoid by-elections. The mythical Conservative whips’ “black book”, stuffed with their colleagues’ indiscretions, does not actually exist. But this is not to say that information which might potentially lead to criminal charges isn’t written down – or known. Will some enterprising police operation be launched to interview Government and Opposition whips (under caution or otherwise)?
9. Disciplinary procedures for MPs: all those belts and braces – but no trousers
There is already a code of conduct for MPs, a Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, a Standards Committee, and a Committee on Standards in Public Life. But these are pieces of a faulty jigsaw. The code of conduct sets out a series of abstract principles as sweeping as they are vague. The Commissioner has no apparent legal training. The Chairman of the Standards Committee has himself been subject to an investigation. The Committee on Standards in Public Life has no direct power. All these belts and braces – but no trousers.
10. Staff are vulnerable, and so are Parliamentarians
As Mark wrote, young and impressionable staff are especially vulnerable to abuse. But the new safeguards that Leadsom announced – rightly, in our view – may have the unintended consequence of leaving MPs open to false claims.
11. No special inquiry, please
If there must be an inquiry into a culture of harassment and bullying at Westminster, sexual or otherwise, it will need to be undertaken on the basis of more evidence than is currently available. In any event, the taxpayer should not have to fork out for another Bloody Sunday or Savile or child abuse-type inquiry – with the all added fun and games for journalists of being able to force the resignation of chairmen. The Committee on Standards in Public Life could do any investigation just as well (and a lot cheaper).
12. Brexit and electoral cross-currents
No political event takes place in a vacuum. Resignations, sackings, reshuffles or by-elections mean turbulence, tarnished Ministerial authority – and potential leadership challenges. How current events might impact on the Budget – or, on a grander scale, Brexit – is anyone’s guess.
13. “If you employ your spouse as your secretary, you’re less likely to stray with your researcher”.
We quote a Conservative backbencher: discuss.
14. Not much mention of the Lords yet.
Expect more in due course.
15. And finally…
A few of our readers, on perusing the details that have emerged so far of Tory MPs got up to, will say of some of the women concerned: what a bunch of snowflakes. We strongly disagree. At the core of the claims against Harvey Weinsten – of which this Parliamentary saga is a kind of mutation – is a disparity of power, and the abuse of it. The heart of the matter at Westminster is the same.
That said, this rolling story is part of a wider culture clash. On the one hand, we have recent legal freedoms, greater than at any time in history, to form attachments as we choose. (Coming next are new liberties to reinvent our own identity – or to seek to.) On the other, there are new informal constraints on those freedoms. These will be dismissed by some as mere political correctness.
There is force to the claim. But there is another way of thinking about the way we live now. “It is not acceptable that names for women’s anatomy are used as swear words,” Valerie Vaz said from the Opposition front bench. One can see in her words the code of today’s rising class, with its view of what is and isn’t “appropriate”, linking hands across time with the take of the Victorian middle class, with its judgements of what was and wasn’t moral. For political correctness, in this case, read good manners.
However, there is a wider difference. The old puritanism was based on traditional ethical codes, as expressed in Christianity. The foundations of its successor are less sure, and a thousand complications follow from their mutability. We will pose only one of them. There is a long list of former MPs who married their secretaries – Nigel Lawson; Douglas Hurd; Norman Fowler, and so on. Would their modern equivalents, if similarly struck by romantic desire, feel that their love dare speak its name? Or would they think it not worth the risk of an affronted call to Leadsom’s reinforced hotline?