Westminster’s bullying scandal grows as first Labour frontbencher steps aside

The shadow work and pension secretary, Debbie Abrahams – dubbed “Tenacious D” – is facing an investigation into her conduct.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Westminster's bullying scandal looks set to run and run. Debbie Abrahams, Labour's shadow work and pension secretary is the first frontbencher to face accusations of bullying.

The Labour party leadership had announced that Abrahams had stepped aside while investigations into her conduct took place, but in a remarkable statement, Abrahams – or “Tenacious D” as some in the party dubbed her due to the large number of parliamentary selections she had to run in before getting her Oldham seat – has accused “certain individuals” in the leader’s office of “aggressive, intimidating and wholly unprofessional behaviour”. She says she will fight the allegations against her in every possible way, including through legal action.

Allies of Abrahams have briefed Politico’s Jack Blanchard that she is under pressure not because of her behaviour towards her staff, but because she stands up to the leader’s office.

Elsewhere, the Speaker, John Bercow, is expected to face a motion of no confidence over allegations that he bullied Kate Emms, his secretary from 2010 to 2011. Bercow, like Abrahams, denies the claims. Likewise, allies of Bercow are pointing out that the MPs calling for him to face censure over the claims – Andrew Bridgen, and James Duddridge – are both longterm critics of the Speaker.

It’s true that Bercow has been a modernising Speaker and an effective ally of backbenchers, which is one reason why the Opposition parties are fond of him. It’s true, too, that the antipathy towards him in part of the Conservative Party has nothing at all to do with how he may or may not treat his staff. But that doesn’t mean anything as far as the truth or otherwise of the allegations against him go.

For supporters of Bercow’s wider works, the fear that the loss of Bercow means the loss of his reform agenda and a more supine Speaker encourages them to belittle the complaints against him, regardless of their truth or otherwise.

Similarly, it’s true that Abrahams has faced criticism for her tenure at the Welfare brief, as readers of my column will know. (I mentioned the mutterings against Abrahams as recently as a fortnight ago.) However, the complaints about Abrahams’ tenure, at least the ones I have heard, have never been about her conduct towards the leader’s office but her handling of the DWP portfolio. But, equally, that doesn’t mean anything as far as the truth or otherwise of the allegations against her go, either.

And, equally, the wider fear in Corbynsceptic circles, that Jeremy Corbyn’s hegemony is bad news for them, encourages MPs to circle the wagons.

In both cases, what really matters are the ongoing investigations into both, rather than the political dimension. And in both instances, it speaks to the real reason why it is harder to tackle allegations of harassment at Westminster, where at every point, politicians have to be willing to risk not only the end of individual careers but the loss of factional advantage, too.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.