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31 October 2017

Will the Westminster sexual harassment scandal really be worse than expenses?

Some of the people involved in compiling the list of Tory MPs feel that its original purpose has been lost.

By Stephen Bush

The Conservative government seems to resemble a scale model of New Labour at times: charismatic showman leads them to historic triumph, he’s brought low by foreign policy disaster, unflashy product of a vicarage becomes leader, is briefly popular before cratering… you get the idea. Will sexual harassment be to this government what the expenses scandal was to that one?

That’s the way of thinking behind today’s Telegraph splash: “Sex scandal ‘could be worse than expenses'” is the headline, while elsewhere in that paper Laura Hughes reveals that Theresa May was warned six months ago that staffers needed better protection from harassment. Over at the Sun, Michael Fallon has confessed to Harry Cole that 15 years ago he touched the broadcaster Julia Hartley-Brewer on the knee. “Fallon: I felt radio host’s knee” is their does-what-it-says-on-the-tin splash. They have also published a more recent version of the widely-circulated list of troublesome Tory MPs collated by their staffers, which includes five further cabinet ministers as well as the Defence Secretary.

The Fallon row is a good example of why creating confidential space for survivors to talk is important: Hartley-Brewer regards the row as historical and doesn’t think of herself as a victim. He’s apologised, they are friends, at least according to an ally of Fallon’s in the paper. But the incident would look rather different if tomorrow a former aide to the Defence Secretary came out with a more recent story. (Jane Merrick writes well on this subject in the i this morning.)

That’s one of the reasons why women in Westminster have been organising on WhatsApp and the original reason why the list of Tory MPs was compiled by staff. Some of the people involved in compiling the list now feel that purpose has been lost, and having seen two copies of the unredacted list I can see where they’re coming from.

Some of those named, particularly early on in the list’s creation, are accused of serious wrongdoing, some have been added to it because they have dated another MP, while one has been added because they are alleged to have been urinated on by three men. Pools are being muddied and the actual problem – of politicians taking advantage of the imbalance of power over their staff – is at risk of being drowned out.

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Journalists have long known of stories they can’t stand up, of survivors who don’t wish to come forward, and it may be that over the coming days, some of the people involved decide that they are willing to be named and those stories will be told. But the drift of the story into questions of strange but consensual sexual affairs means that the scandal might fizzle out rather than ignite.