Imbalance of power at heart of Westminster sex scandal
At the heart of the Westminster harassment scandal, which claimed its first ministerial casualty this week, is an imbalance of power between ambitious young employees and the MPs who can make or break their careers.
Defence minister Michael Fallon stepped down on Wednesday amid the deepening row in British politics, admitting his behaviour had “fallen below the high standards required” of his role.
Earlier in the week, he had apologised for putting his hand on the knee of a journalist in 2002 – but there was widespread speculation that there were other allegations that were likely to come out.
Prime Minister Theresa May on Thursday named Gavin Williamson to replace Fallon.
It represents a significant promotion for the 41-year-old, a trusted ally whose former job as chief whip involved enforcing discipline for May’s Conservative Party in parliament.
Williamson, who was only elected to parliament in 2010, is best known for having a pet tarantula, Cronus, that he keeps in a glass tank on his desk.
Two other ministers are still under investigation – one for asking his then secretary to buy him sex toys and another for allegedly touching the knee of a journalist and activist and then sending her a suggestive text.
Many more cases are rumoured, and in the most serious incident a Labour activist said she was raped as a teenager by a senior party member – but was advised not to report the assault for fear of harming her career.
In almost all the cases, the alleged perpetrator has been more senior – and in the case of MPs and their own staff, they have directly employed their victim.
“It’s clear there has been – not just in our trade, it started with the Weinstein affair – that there has been this sense that people can use positions of power to demand things from others, and that has got to stop,” Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson told BBC radio.
“It isn’t actually about sex, it’s about power. It is always about power. And we as elected representatives have to hold ourselves to a higher standard ... The dam has broken on this now.”
Liz Saville Roberts, a Welsh MP, told the House of Commons on Monday that a member of parliamentary staff had reported a sexual assault to the authorities but nothing was done.
“She is deeply disappointed and distrustful, and she tells me that distrust is endemic,” she said.
Labour MP Harriet Harman told the same debate: “It is almost impossible for someone at the bottom of the system to complain and make allegations about someone at the top. That gives those at the top impunity, of which some – few, but some – will take advantage.”
Theresa May has called for tighter rules on the conduct of MPs, and invited other party leaders to a meeting on Monday to discuss setting up an independent grievance procedure for everyone working in parliament.
The parties are also examining their own internal complaints systems – although some believe that there is often an interest in keeping allegations quiet.
Party whips responsible for enforcing discipline are widely believed to gather information on MPs’ bad behaviour, which they can use as leverage.
May said on Wednesday that whips should make clear “that where there are any sexual abuse allegations that could be of a criminal nature, that people should go to the police”.
But for many, the problem goes much deeper.
“There is a cultural problem in Westminster. It’s complex. MPs who work late sharing restaurants and bars with young researchers who don’t [need to be there],” Conservative MP Nadine Dorries said on Twitter on Wednesday.
Parliament has a number of places to eat and drink, but many young employees gather in the Sports and Social Club, effectively a pub with a pool table and darts board that has long had a reputation as the scene of heavy drinking.
One lawmaker this week said that some researchers – men and women – had been made to feel “deeply uncomfortable” by MPs who joined them in the bar.
Dorries said the Sports and Social Club and places like it should be closed down, saying there were “plenty of pubs around London. No other workplace provides bars”.