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17 June 2018updated 18 Jun 2018 10:29am

Christopher Chope could have another toxic embarrassment in store for the government

Some Tories fear that the party's "dinosaur" backbenchers could obstruct plans to tackle sexual harassment within the Commons.

By Patrick Maguire

Christopher Chope, the veteran Conservative MP who blocked government-backed plans to criminalise upskirting, is now persona non grata among many of his colleagues. Tory inboxes are full of complaints about Chope’s veto, and, mindful of the impact manifesto pledges on fox hunting and ivory had in marginal seats at the last election, anxieties are running high over the political consequences.

It’s hard to imagine that things could get much worse for the government than the prime minister being forced to defend knighting the man whose only claim to recognition by the broader public after four decades in parliament is objecting to a law to stop people taking pictures up women’s skirts, as she was on Marr this morning. But some Tories fear that worse is indeed yet to come, courtesy of Chope and MPs like him. 

Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the House of Commons, hopes to pass new measures to deal with bullying and sexual harassment within parliament before MPs break up for recess next month. Unveiled in February, they include an independent Human Resources for parliamentary staff, a beefed-up complaints system and temporary suspension of parliamentary passes for MPs accused of misbehaviour. 

Given the harrowing revelations that have emerged from past and present Westminster employees since the sexual harassment scandal broke last year, one would assume this stuff is all uncontroversial enough to pass on the nod. Not so. Though Chope has denied that he is a “dinosaur” in a too-little-too-late interview with the Bournemouth Echo on the upskirting row today, that’s exactly the word that’s being used to describe his ilk by those leading the push for better measures to prevent bullying and harassment in the Commons.

Whatever Leadsom proposes, she needs to take Tory MPs with her. Some fear that job will be much harder than it looks, despite the obvious incentive for Conservatives not to block the plans. Here is where Chope’s intervention on upskirting – and his arcane justification for it – could have explosive consequences for the government.

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Chope told his local paper that he in fact supported upskirting being criminalised, but blocked the bill because he did not “agree with legislation being brought in with no debate at Second Reading”. “The government has been hijacking time that is rightfully that of backbenchers. This is about who controls the House of Commons on Fridays and that’s where I am coming from,” he said. 

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Given the toxicity of the fallout Chope and his party have had to endure since, it seems a weird and obscure hill to die on. But the basic sentiment he expresses – that the democratic rights of MPs should be inviolate and must not be impinged on by the government of the day, whatever the justification – is a pervasive one among a certain sort of Tory MP. 

That belief is the thread that links decisions like blocking a private members’ bill on upskirting with lobbying against replacing a Commons bar with a creche, another vintage Chope move that’s had an airing in recent days, and objecting to measures to combat sexual harassment in the Commons. Those familiar with the plans describe an alarming level of internal opposition from MPs who believe them to be first and foremost a challenge to their supposedly sacrosanct rights as legislators that should be resisted at any cost, and attempts to corral otherwise sensible Tories to oppose them.

The problem is that the cost in this case would be headlines to the effect of: “Tory MPs delay/water down/object to plans to tackle harassment in parliament.” After upskirting, and the resignation of two cabinet ministers amid accusations of inappropriate conduct, is that really a good look for the party and its MPs, particularly those in marginal seats? 

The problem, as Chope’s intervention on upskirting demonstrates, is that the dinosaurs don’t think in those terms. For them, parliamentary process and their inviolable place as the arbiters of it is the only thing that matters. The problem, however, is that nobody else cares. Upskirting legislation will eventually pass, as will measures to combat sexual harassment in Westminster. But the mess of the former proves fears over the latter is not misplaced: otherwise anonymous Tory MPs can, and will, turn straightforward PR wins for the government into disastrous, toxic losses for the sake of proving an academic point.