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Next PM shouldn’t forget Johnson’s attitude to sexual assault was his undoing

As a Westminster staffer, I saw first-hand how victims are ignored and perpetrators of sexual assault are protected

Becky Paton
12 July 2022, 12.01am
The first wave of ‘Pestminster’ stories broke in 2017, before Johnson took office
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Reuters/Luke MacGregor

As the post-mortem into Boris Johnson’s political downfall begins, it’s important to remember what brought his time as prime minister to its end: an allegation of sexual assault, and an attempt by those in power to cover up what they knew and when.

Many felt Johnson’s leadership had refused to take sexual misconduct seriously. The allegations of sexual misconduct against former deputy whip Chris Pincher, and the revelation that Johnson had brought him into government despite knowing about previous complaints, will be the prime minister’s legacy.

It's not just the sheer number of allegations that blighted Johnson’s time as prime minister, but rather how he oversaw a culture that sought to dismiss victims and protect their own. Parliamentary staffers I have spoken to say the culture of sexual misconduct within Westminster worsened while Johnson was in charge.

Victims said they felt dissuaded from coming forward or speaking out, as they had seen other complaints ignored and the accused protected. Whereas an allegation of sexual assault against an MP would have normally resulted in suspension and an investigation under any other prime minister, under Johnson, victims said their assailants sometimes ended up being promoted – as happened with Pincher.

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Johnson’s apparently dismissive attitude towards allegations involving sexual assault could be said to have begun in March 2019, when – as a backbencher – he said that funding for investigating historic child sexual abuse was money “spaffed up the wall”.

The charity NSPCC described his comments as an “affront to victims”.

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For young female staffers, it’s common to be cornered by a drunken MP, or subjected to a pat on the bum or an indecent proposal

Then, as prime minister, allegations of sexual misconduct were raised against Johnson himself by journalist Charlotte Edwardes, who claimed he had touched her leg under table over dinner. A Number 10 spokesperson denied the allegation.

Throughout his time in Downing Street, allegations of sexual harassment and assault persisted against Conservative MPs. Two unnamed MPs were arrested for rape, the former MP for Wakefield was jailed for sexual assault, David Warburton was suspended over claims of sexual harassment, and Neil Parish resigned after being caught watching porn in the Commons.

Multiple complaints were also raised against Pincher, who resigned last week following allegations that he groped two men while drinking at the Carlton Club, a private members’ club in central London that is popular with Conservative politicians and supporters.

Previously, Pincher had been promoted and protected, able to exert power in a range of government jobs. Johnson’s seeming loyalty to Pincher sent a clear message to victims of sexual misconduct in Westminster that they did not matter.

The first wave of ‘Pestminster’ stories broke in 2017, before Johnson’s premiership, revealing the scale of sexual misconduct and abuse of power in politics. But many staffers I spoke with recently feel Johnson’s cavalier attitude to rules and unquestioning protection of allies had created a political culture where MPs were able to act with a sense of impunity.

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‘We watch the government's response to Chris Pincher and all we see is the misogynistic “old boys network” at work’

Last month, allegations emerged that a Tory MP had ‘spiked four men with date rape drugs’ and sexually assaulted them. Despite the seriousness of the allegations, the chief whip rejected a call by staffers to launch an investigation. On his last day before announcing his intention to stand down as prime minister, Johnson evaded a question from the Liaison Committee on whether he had been made aware of allegations against other ministers in his government.

I recently spoke to someone who had tried to raise concerns of sexual misconduct about a minister, but said she felt ignored and was told the MP was ‘untouchable’.

Amid the political chaos, the catalyst for Johnson’s resignation should not be forgotten. After Pincher resigned, Number 10 said Johnson “considered the matter closed” and would take no further action. His hand was only finally forced by a political outcry.

His denial that he did not know about allegations against the MP were undermined as it was revealed the prime minister allegedly called the deputy chief whip “Pincher by name, pincher by nature”. The scandal reflected how sexual misconduct allegations are treated in politics: victims ignored, complaints dismissed, and perpetrators protected.

That a prime minister has been brought down by sexual misconduct allegations should be a watershed moment

That a prime minister has been brought down by sexual misconduct allegations should be a watershed moment, finally forcing Westminster to confront the problem head on. With rape prosecutions at an all time low, and the criminal justice system failing victims, it’s more important than ever that law-makers themselves set an example.

All political parties have a duty to suspend the whip from MPs under investigation, and to take all allegations seriously. Parliament should bring in measures to prevent MPs under investigation from attending, to protect staff and support victims. Internal party complaints procedures need to be overhauled for greater transparency so that those that come forward have faith in the system and know that they will be heard. Many victims I speak to feel failed by partisan internal investigations, where complaints have not been investigated properly or pressure has been applied from senior figures.

Johnson leaves many legacies, but the Pincher scandal should not be forgotten. It exposed how many in Westminster have had to deal with a political culture that ignores complaints and excuses those who abuse their power.

A change of prime minister presents a chance for new leadership to confront the problem and start taking sexual misconduct in politics seriously.

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