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23 November 2021updated 22 Nov 2021 7:26pm

Ailbhe Rea’s Diary: Why I spoke out about Stanley Johnson

I didn’t want Caroline Nokes to be alone in calling out something I knew hadn't only happened to her.

By Ailbhe Rea

When I was 24, and had been in my job at the New Statesman for two months – my first in political journalism – I went to a party at Conservative conference. It was in Manchester, in 2019. I knew no one, but recognised everyone.

I had just joined a group of people I vaguely knew, when a familiar face turned around from the drinks table and began moving through the crowd in our direction: Stanley Johnson. I gave him a warm smile – because this was the Prime Minister’s father, a nice older man, and someone I recognised. He smiled back, but it became more of a leer. As he walked past, he reached out to put his hand on my back. His hand slid down, and lingered too low and for too long. I was so surprised and confused, I barely managed a grimace before he was gone. I said nothing to him.

But it has come up in conversation since then, with friends and colleagues. When I tell people, the response has been along the lines of: Johnson is notoriously “handsy”. What happened to me never seemed important enough to risk saying anything more publicly – I wouldn’t even have known how to do so. I know how distressing these things can be (frankly, I have experienced worse), but the incident didn’t upset me too much, or preoccupy me. It was the principle of it that I objected to: I should not be touched in a sexual way by anyone, anywhere, without my consent. I shouldn’t have to put up with that at work, at a party, or anywhere else – nor should anyone. The culture of entitlement to women’s bodies begins with smaller acts than this and often leads to far, far worse.  

***

Recently, I mentioned the incident in passing to my parents. They were shocked, sincerely hurt that their daughter might not be fully respected as she goes about her exciting job in Westminster. Their reaction hurt me more than the incident had at the time. (My Dad, a true Belfast man, collected himself and declared Stanley Johnson a “dirty oul get”, which I appreciate might not translate.)  

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***

Then, on 15 November, I saw that Caroline Nokes, a Conservative MP, had told Sky News that Stanley Johnson had smacked her “on the backside about as hard as he could” at a Conservative Party conference in 2003, saying, “Oh, Romsey, you’ve got a lovely seat.” She was the Conservative candidate for Romsey and Southampton North at the time, and in her early thirties. Stanley Johnson’s response to the allegation disgusted me. “I have no recollection of Caroline Nokes at all – but there you go,” he told a Sky reporter. “And no reply… Hey ho, good luck and thanks.” He did not respond to the New Statesman’s requests for comment on this article.

Nokes had told Sky that she now regards it “as a duty, an absolute duty” to call out this behaviour wherever she sees it, a duty to “be the noisy, aggravating, aggressive woman in the room”. Nokes wants to be that woman “because if I’m not prepared to do that, then my daughter won’t be prepared to do that… You do get to a point where you go, ‘Up with this, I will not put.’” 

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I admit that a somewhat grandiose suffragette phrase flew into my head: “Courage calls to courage everywhere”.  I didn’t want Nokes to be alone in calling out something I knew hadn’t only happened to her. It was a courageous feminist act and I wanted to match that in the very small way I could. So I posted a tweet that night on 15 November: “Stanley Johnson also groped me at a party at Conservative conference in 2019. I am grateful to Caroline Nokes for calling out something that none of us should have to put up with – not least from the Prime Minister’s father.” My phone has scarcely stopped ringing since.

***

I am grateful to the brilliant men and women from the world of politics and beyond who have been in touch in recent days – as well as kind colleagues, New Statesman readers and my less newsy friends who gradually got in touch with their slow trickle of: “Mate! Just heard your name on the news?! Are you OK?” What meant the most to me were the messages from women at the top of politics and journalism – many of whom I don’t know personally – who sent me messages of support at a moment when it felt most scary. “Lots of us have your back,” one said. “You’re not alone.” The former Conservative cabinet minister who picked up the phone to offer his support knows who he is, and I am grateful to him, too. I am also grateful to the GB News presenter Isabel Oakeshott, who inadvertently backed me up, tweeting: “The charming Stanley Johnson can be a little over-friendly – indeed handsy – but I don’t believe this is one for the police.”

***

Caroline Nokes gains nothing from speaking out. I gain nothing from it either, except a marginally more difficult relationship with parts of the Conservative Party, and the discomfort of being a journalist in the story. 

But I see this as Stanley Johnson’s problem, not mine or Nokes’s. I hope that the act of speaking out will be no more than a footnote in my career. I have no doubt Stanley Johnson will attend many more receptions at Conservative conference. I just hope that, next time, he keeps his hands to himself. Hey ho. 

This Diary is published in the print edition of the New Statesman dated 26 November 2021

This article appears in the 24 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Agent of Chaos