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3 November 2017

A week in Pestminster: how the sexual harassment scandal unfolded

A look back at the events that toppled a Cabinet minister. 

By Julia Rampen

A week that opened with the circulation of a redacted list of Tory MPs reportedly doing inappropriate things has ended with Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins being suspended from the party pending investigation, with the resignation of Michael Fallon from the Cabinet in between. 

Those following what has been dubbed “Pestminster” may nevertheless struggle to keep up with the Byzantine internal reporting structures, the range of accusations being levied and the sheer number of MPs involved.

Here’s a short update of where things stood by Friday.

Michael Fallon resigned as Defence Secretary

A Tory veteran, Fallon’s sudden toppling had hacks reaching for House of Cards analogies. In the run up to his resignation, the allegations against him seemed unlikely to damage his career – he had put his hand on the knee of journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer in 2002 and she said she threatened to punch him in the face “and that was the end of the matter”.

Fallon was forced to resign on the premise that more allegations were coming (they did, and he denied them). But meanwhile, the appointment of Gavin Williamson, the tarantula owner behind Fallon’s fall, as his replacement set Westminster a-chatter. Fallon did not have many fans, it seems, but neither does Williamson. George Eaton has profiled him here.

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Both Labour and the Tories are caught up in the scandal

Although the most dramatic political developments have been driven by Tory sleaze revelations, Labour has been dealing with a sexual harassment crisis of its own. Party activist Bex Bailey told the Guardian she was raped by a more senior party member in 2011 and discouraged from reporting it. Even before the week began, Jared O’Mara, the MP for Sheffield Hallam, had been suspended for offensive comments he made online in the mid 2000s. Kelvin Hopkins has now also been suspended, following complaints about his behaviour towards a party activist.

The Lib Dems, of course, already had their Westminster Weinstein moment in 2013, when Lord Rennard was publicly accused by four women of sexual harassment. One of them, Alison Goldworthy, wrote in the New Statesman this week about the backlash she faced after she described him shoving his hand in her knickers (Rennard still denies the claims). 

Meanwhile, the Scottish National Party (the third largest party in the House of Commons), has faced less national media scrutiny but is nevertheless also conducting an internal investigation. Longtime Scottish politics watchers have also been reminded of MP Angus MacNeil’s romp with two teenagers in 2007 in Shetland

It’s very hard to report sexual harassment at Westminster

If the corridors of power are paced by sex pests, it is partly because it’s so hard to report them. The main victims of sexual harassment appear to be staffers, who are tend to be directly employed by their MP, are at the bottom of the Westminster food chain, and rely on contacts and references to move up it. Stephen Bush writes about the unique difficulties of reporting harassment within political parties, Anoosh Chakelian explains the differences between policies in different parties. Then there is the pull of party loyalty that can encourage victims of abuse to prioritise protecting an MP’s reputation above everything else. 

The Daily Mail helpfully illustrated what could happen if you accuse a powerful politician of being a creep. When Kate Maltby, a political journalist, described an encounter with Damian Green, Theresa May’s key ally, in an article explaining how an older male politician’s behaviour could make a young female journalist feel extremely uncomfortable, her reward was a hatchet job entitled “One very pushy lady”

In Westminster, abuse is lumped together with “things I can use against my enemy”

Some in Westminster have express disquiet about the way that in the list of Tory MPs, cases of harassment were listed alongside unusual but consensual activities, as if all were simply leverage to be used against an opponent. One former staffer, Sophie Bolsover, refuted the assertion that MP Rory Stewart had asked her to “do odd things”, described him as an excellent employer and said her inclusion on the list had “caused deep distress an anxiety”. 

It’s not over yet

What started with a list has developed into three separate mini-dramas. First, there are the ongoing revelations, which are likely to continue – as Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson implied when she urged the clearing of the stables”. Second, there’s May’s reshuffle, and the question of whether she can hold onto power. Finally, there’s the question of accountability in Westminster, and whether parties can reorganise in a way that allows the powerless to report on the powerful. 

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