Here at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, MPs and ministers are struggling to address new allegations that Boris Johnson groped a young journalist while he was editor of the Spectator.
The allegations appear in today’s Sunday Times, where columnist Charlotte Edwardes writes that Johnson squeezed her thigh during a Spectator lunch, and did the same to the woman on his other side.
At an event this afternoon dedicated to the question of why the Conservatives are haemorrhaging support among young women (only 7 per cent of women under 25 voted Conservative in 2017), Helen Whately, the party’s deputy chairwoman and minister for arts, declined to answer a question about how the party should respond to the allegations. This followed calls from another panellist, Aceil Haddad, “to stop defending Boris”.
Haddad, who campaigns to end the motherhood penalty in workplaces, said: “We cannot justify groping underneath the table. We need to say no, this is not reflective of us as people.” She announced that she had recently left the party after ten years of membership, and called on those who have stayed to “do something”.
Previously in the discussion Whately had responded to a question on whether the party had a “Boris problem” with women by insisting that she had spoken to the Prime Minister before his election to the leadership, and is “absolutely positive that he is committed to the women’s agenda”. Another panellist added that these are “just allegations” and “being investigated”, before being informed that that is not currently the case. The chair then ruled that this was “not the right path for the discussion” and moved on without taking further responses from the panel.
At a previous event, Penny Mordaunt, the former defence secretary who was also responsible for the women and equalities brief, faced similar questions. Mordaunt said: “I know that [Boris Johnson] is not the individual he is quite often painted as being. He is a decent person and I think he cares a great deal about women and girls.”
Rachel Maclean MP, who is the new PPS to the Chancellor, agreed, and stood by her comments that she is “proud to be part of a government led by a feminist”, citing the Prime Minister’s previous work in supporting legislation to combat FGM.
George Freeman, minister for trade, was more strident, arguing that “we’re hearing a very biased account of the Prime Minister’s chemistry” and that he is under huge “political and personal attack”.
They are all out to get him at the moment” agreed the former Conservative MP Flick Drummond.
Matt Hancock, meanwhile, is facing a backlash after saying at another fringe event that the allegations were a matter for Johnson’s “private” life.
Whatever these party figures believe privately about these allegations, they are struggling to address them satisfactorily in public. Their hope is that the issue will simply go away before someone veers off script and inflames the issue further. Given what we’ve seen so far, that looks unlikely.