Sunday 15 September 2019

Parties say they are taking abuse claims seriously - but they're lying

Julia Hartley-Brewer leaves talkRADIO Studios in London, following Sir Michael Fallon's resignation amid sleaze allegations. Photo: PA
Julia Hartley-Brewer leaves talkRADIO Studios in London, following Sir Michael Fallon's resignation amid sleaze allegations. Photo: PA

Tom Harris

On the evening of the 2001 general election, my parents made the 30km journey from Ayrshire to Glasgow in order to witness at first hand their son being elected as a member of parliament. When I made my acceptance speech, I had never seen such pride on their faces.

Eight years later, my dad, now a widower, fell into a conversation with a stranger on a train, and the talk turned to their respective offspring. Dad later reported that when he had been asked what his son did, "I didn't want to tell him you were an MP."

The 2009 expenses scandal was in full swing at the time. Even though I was (largely) unscathed by the revelations, having an MP in the family had become a source of embarrassment rather than pride to my family.

And as each day brings yet more revelations of inappropriate, lecherous behaviour by MPs and ministers, a new but horrifyingly familiar cloud has descended on the bars and tearooms of Westminster. Many of those now serving as MPs were not around eight years ago and cannot imagine the deep and profound dread that prevailed, as the 'Telegraph' churned out a daily charge sheet against the House of Commons.

As each day passed, as more colleagues were forced to apologise and, in many cases, announce they would step down as parliamentarians, the rest of us breathed a short sigh of relief, before the tension mounted again and the run-up to the next day's revelations began.

As in 2009, the political parties are insisting they take allegations of sexual impropriety seriously. They are lying. Because, as in 2009, they are being spurred into action not because they have only just been made aware of ministers' and MPs' appalling behaviour but because it is being reported publicly and they wish to minimise political damage.

It is simply inconceivable that party whips had no knowledge of Michael Fallon's touchy-feely tendencies towards women until this week.

We already know that when young Labour activist Bex Bailey made a complaint about the assault against her by a senior Labour figure she was told by a party official to keep quiet about it. Westminster has always been full of gossip and reports about this or that minister or MP known to be "handsy".

And if brave women were not now coming forward with their stories, the political parties now declaring a "zero tolerance" approach to such sexist abuse of power would be doing nothing to discipline the miscreants or limit their activities.

In the absence of the current outcry, which political party would voluntarily choose to spark such a public debate by identifying its own senior members as sexual predators?

Even as he did the "honourable thing" yesterday, Fallon betrayed the very mindset that has landed him prematurely back on the backbenches.

"What was acceptable 15 years ago is not acceptable today," he magnanimously told the BBC's Laura Kuenssberg.

What, exactly, was acceptable 15 years ago? Unwanted physical sexual advances? That was never acceptable.

But I also have bad news for Theresa May. Even though this current scandal affects all the main parties, the music has stopped while she, and no one else, is holding the parcel.

No one can seriously doubt that Theresa May is genuinely disappointed in her male colleagues' behaviour, nor that she is willing to swing the axe if necessary to remove those who have been exposed as lacking the skills or ability for dealing courteously and professionally with the opposite sex.

Yet these revelations have occurred at the worst possible time for the prime minister. With a united cabinet and a minimum of infighting, with a clear vision of what Brexit will mean and what it will look like, her government might have weathered this storm with equanimity, offering confidence to observers that this challenge, like other serious ones, would be efficiently dealt with.

Instead, one mini-reshuffle later, and with the prospect of more revelations to come, May looks increasingly at the mercy of events, not master of them.

Irish Independent

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