A couple of weeks ago I was a guest on the Savage Lovecast, the sex and relationships advice podcast hosted by Dan Savage. I was there to explain the Neil Parish porn-watching scandal to Savage’s predominantly American audience, making the point that the issue was not an MP watching adult content online (something the vast majority of men do) but the fact that he did so in a busy workplace, surrounded by female colleagues who were very likely to notice. Anyone choosing to watch porn in such high-risk circumstances, I argued, was almost certainly getting off on drawing unsuspecting women into the fantasy, on the power of unsettling and shocking those around him and on the message that would undoubtedly send about the place of women in politics and the lack of consequences for men in positions of power. At best, it was deeply disrespectful; at worst, coercive.
Moreover, I explained, Parish wasn’t alone; there were 56 MPs under investigation for sexual misconduct, almost 10 per cent of the House of Commons. The situation was so dire we had a term for it: “Pestminster” — a joke that took a bit of interpreting to make sense to Americans. Afterwards, I couldn’t get the conservation out my head. I couldn’t stop thinking about how flippantly that term has been bandied around over the past five years, since the original Pestminster scandal — the wave of sexual assault, bullying and harassment allegations about high-profile figures in parliament — broke in 2017. It’s such a catchy portmanteau, a single letter changed to transform the seat of the British government into a hotbed for sex pests. It’s witty and funny — until you pause and remember what it is you’re laughing about.
This week brings another Pestminster scandal: a Tory MP arrested on suspicion of rape, indecent assault, sexual assault, abuse of a position of trust and misconduct in a public office, allegedly occurring between 2002 to 2009. He has been released on bail and told to stay away from Westminster while investigations continue, but has not had the Conservative whip removed because the party whips fear that doing so would identify the MP, and so risk identifying the alleged victim.
When the story broke, the consensus on social media — particularly among political journalists — seemed to be “not again”. We are exhausted by these stories: not just of Parish but of Imran Khan, who has been found guilty of assaulting a 15-year-old boy; of David Warburton, who has been accused of sexual harassment and suspended from the Tory party; of Rob Roberts, whose punishment for harassing a staff member was a 12-week suspension from the party and a six-week suspension from parliament; of Charlie Elphicke, who was convicted of sexually assault of three women and jailed but whose ex-wife, who now has his old seat in the Commons, defended him and accused one of his victims of lying.
This is not, of course, a problem specific to the Tory party. There are some shocking allegations about Labour figures too, most notably the former Hartlepool MP Mike Hill, who was found by an employment tribunal to have assaulted a staff member, and just a month ago a parliamentary investigation upheld sexual harassment complaints against two SNP MPs. Of the 56 MPs under investigation, two are from the government’s front bench and two are in the shadow cabinet.
This is the reality of “Pestminster”: victims — both women and men — groped and grabbed and tormented by some of the most influential people in the country, elected representatives high on power who seem to believe that their status in parliament means neither the law nor the rules of human decency apply to them.
The trouble is that, until recently, they have been right. It can take years for perpetrators to face consequences for their behaviour: Khan committed his assault in 2008; one of Elphicke’s offences took place in 2007. Of the original 2017 Pestminster accusations, many were historical, and the complaints procedure hastily set up to try to deal with such matters is widely regarded as utterly toothless. There have been repeated instances of whips ignoring complaints to protect accused MPs, and the sheer frequency of these stories does little to suggest that the culture of impunity revealed in 2017 has dissipated.
This morning Liz Truss called the latest accusations “worrying” and “appalling”, which they most definitely are. But she also appeared to dismiss the cultural aspect, saying that “we have to hold individuals to account rather than blame the House of Commons”. Does the Foreign Secretary really believe those two things are mutually exclusive? Is it really so hard to accept that individuals should be held fully accountable for their actions and also that a workplace which attracts and enables so many “sex pests” has some serious problems? Do MPs like Truss really not care that almost 10 per cent of their number are accused of abusing their power, or that the structures meant to protect parliamentary staffers are so clearly failing? Is this really the best we can do?
Maybe it is. Maybe reform is too hard and we’re all so exhausted by the endless scandals we’ve become inured to what they’re really about. It’s easier to laugh at the absurdity of an MP claiming he clicked on porn by accident when googling tractors than it is to dismantle a culture that emboldens his colleagues to assault their staff. But if we are to make any progress at all, it starts with acknowledging just how severe, how dire, how utterly unacceptable the current situation is — and how ashamed we should be that Westminster is so well known for sexual misconduct we have coined a special word for it.