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Fresh by-election headache for Sunak as MP Chris Pincher faces suspension over groping allegations

Rishi Sunak could now face as many as five difficult by-elections

Archie Mitchell
Thursday 06 July 2023 17:50 BST
Chris Pincher faces eight-week suspension after groping allegations upheld

Rishi Sunak is facing a fresh by-election headache after a damning report recommended former Tory MP Chris Pincher be suspended for groping two men.

The prime minister is already gearing up for three difficult contests this month in seats the Conservatives won in 2019. A fourth is set to be triggered when former culture secretary Nadine Dorries formally resigns, which she promised to do “with immediate effect” almost a month ago.

And a fifth by-election in Mr Pincher’s Tamworth constituency presents a significant challenge for Mr Sunak, with polls suggesting Labour could take the seat.

The report, by parliament’s committee on standards, found Mr Pincher had groped two individuals at the exclusive Carlton Club in London.

“His physical contact with those individuals was unwanted, upsetting, and deeply inappropriate,” the report said, recommending an eight-week suspension for the former Tory MP.

Mr Pincher’s suspension is above the 10-day threshold to trigger a recall petition in his Tamworth constituency. If one in 10 voters in the constituency signs the petition, a by-election will be held.

Despite winning the seat with a 19,634 vote majority in 2019, polling site Electoral Calculus suggests Labour is on track to win the seat.

With his party lagging almost 20 points behind Labour in the polls, Mr Sunak risks a series of damaging defeats. He faces contests in Boris Johnson’s former Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat, ally Nigel Adams’s Selby and Ainsty constituency and Somerton and Frome, where MP David Warburton resigned over sexual harassment allegations.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats are also eyeing the prize of claiming Ms Dorries’s Mid Bedfordshire seat, which has been won by the Tories in every general election since 1931.

A further by-election is expected in Rutherglen and Hamilton West after former SNP MP Margaret Ferrier was suspended for breaching Covid rules, but it is set to be a battle between Labour and the Scottish nationalists.

Chris Pincher quit his role in June 2022 (PA Archive)

Mr Pincher was the Tory government’s deputy chief whip last summer when he was accused of drunkenly groping the men at a Carlton Club event last June.

Mr Pincher had spoken at the event, returning later in the evening. The report found that after returning, Mr Pincher approached a House of Lords staffer he had never met, grabbed his forearm, stroked his neck and squeezed his bottom and testicles.

Someone else at the Carlton Club that evening had reported that they had been groped by Mr Pincher, the report added. “Mr Pincher’s conduct on 29 and 30 June 2022 was deeply inappropriate and shameful,” parliamentary commissioner for standards Daniel Greenberg said.

Senior Tory MP Alicia Kearns, chair of the foreign affairs select committee, called on Mr Pincher to resign his seat because of “severity of what he was accused of”. She told the News Agents podcast: “None of us want by-elections … [but] it’s very clear to me that Chris Pincher brought the reputation of the House into disrepute.”

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner called for Mr Pincher to resign as an MP, rather than waiting for a by-election to be triggered. She said Mr Pincher’s actions were “shocking”, but said “what is worse is the way the Conservative Party protected him”.

Ms Rayner said: “Rishi Sunak has been too weak to act against Chris Pincher because he’s too weak to lead a Conservative Party which is too divided to govern the country. And it is working people who are paying the price with a cost of living crisis.

“The people of Tamworth and the surrounding villages deserve more from their parliamentary representative.”

Boris Johnson’s exit was hastened by his handling of Pincher saga (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

And the Liberal Democrats called for Mr Sunak to “show some backbone” and vote to suspend Mr Pincher. “After missing so many vital votes in parliament, Rishi Sunak must finally show some backbone and confirm he will vote to suspend Chris Pincher,” chief whip Wendy Chamberlain said.

She said: “Chris Pincher adds his name to the long list of disgraced former Conservatives caught up in sleaze and scandal. Sunak promised to govern with integrity, he must vote with it.”

In a written submission to the inquiry, Mr Pincher said he was unable to remember the events in question, but was “conscious of the effect” of his behaviour on everyone involved. He added: “I’m very sorry and apologise to them all, as I did the day I resigned from the government.”

He apologised again on Thursday, adding that he has sought professional medical help, “which is ongoing and has been beneficial to me”. He said he will “read the report carefully” and reflect on it before commenting further.

Already battling to remain prime minister while dogged by Partygate allegations, Mr Johnson’s handling of the Pincher affair was the final straw for his cabinet support.

At the time, Mr Johnson did not deny that he used the phrase “Pincher by name, pincher by nature” about the ex-minister. In a new interview for the One Decision podcast, Mr Johnson scoffed at a question about his handling of groping allegations against the MP.

Asked if he wished he had listened to Tory MPs when they shared their unease over his failure to act on claims, he pretended to snore.

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