Parliament’s most senior female MP has demanded change to the Commons code of conduct to make misogyny an offence punishable by suspension from the house.
Harriet Harman’s call came amid widespread condemnation of “disgusting” remarks directed at Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner by an anonymous Conservative MP, which the mother of the house said amounted to an accusation of “flashing”.
The comment, reported in The Mail on Sunday, was condemned by Boris Johnson as “misogynistic tripe”, while Labour leader Keir Starmer said that it was part of a “sexist” culture in parliament which must be changed.
Commons speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle has demanded a meeting on Wednesday with The Mail on Sunday editor David Dillon and the author of the article Glen Owen to discuss the “demeaning” comments, which he said could deter women from standing for parliament “to the detriment of us all”.
Sources close to the government Whips Office said that “questions are being asked around the palace, and if the anonymous source is identified, action will be taken”. But there was no announcement of a formal inquiry by either the Conservative Party or Downing Street.
Dame Harriet said it was “not good enough” for Mr Johnson simply to disown the offensive remark – suggesting that Ms Rayner tries to throw him off his stride at the despatch box by crossing and uncrossing her legs like Sharon Stone in the film Basic Instinct.
“He shouldn’t just be commenting on it, he needs to be taking action,” she told The Independent. “Prime ministers are judged on their actions not their words. He could very easily be taking action to find out who made these comments and removing the whip from them.”
Making misogynistic, homophobic and racist language a specific breach of the MPs’ code of conduct would allow an inquiry by Commons standards commissioner Kathryn Stone, potentially leading to a humiliating apology on the floor of the house or suspension. A suspension of more than 10 days could trigger a recall petition in the MP’s constituency to remove them from office.
The row comes just weeks after Conservative MPs voted down an attempt to make misogyny a hate crime, in the same way that crimes motivated by racism are treated.
Dame Harriet said that sexist MPs were currently able to make with “impunity” comments which would lead to a charge of gross misconduct if made by a senior executive in a private company about a colleague.
And she said that such comments were a “universal” experience for women in the Commons, which had got worse since she arrived at Westminster in 1982 as one of just 22 female MPs and was regularly mocked as “Harriet Harperson”.
“It is without doubt a way of silencing women and challenging them for having the temerity to be elected and working on equal terms with men,” she said. “It’s about denigrating and belittling women and it is deeply offensive.
“When I arrived, there was constant anonymous briefing to the press on misogynistic lines and, as a younger woman MP I was constantly preoccupied with what I should or shouldn’t be wearing or how I should appear.
“In a way, it worse now because then they could simply ignore the voices of a handful of women. Now they are confronted with a much larger group of confident women, some men find it threatening and there is a backlash.”
Mr Johnson described the anonymous MP’s comments as “the most appalling load of sexist, misogynist tripe” and said he had “immediately” contacted Ms Rayner to make clear his disapproval.
Quoting Shakespeare’s King Lear, he said that if he ever found out who was responsible, he would unleash “the terrors of the Earth” upon them.
But he declined to say whether he agreed with Sir Keir Starmer that it was indicative of a wider culture of sexism at Westminster.
The Labour leader said there would be “zero tolerance” for such attitudes in his own party and that the same should apply across the political divide.
“It is rank sexism, rank misogyny,” Sir Keir told ITV’s This Morning. “She was really disgusted that all of her political attributes were put aside for this ridiculous, offensive story.
“We have got to change the culture. The culture in parliament, it is sexist, it is misogynist. We need to change it.”
Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves recalled how, when she was pregnant with her second child, stories were spread that she would not be able to serve in the shadow cabinet because she’d be too busy looking after her baby.
“I don’t think there is a female member of parliament or a single staff member in parliament who hasn’t got their own story of sexism and misogyny,” she said.
The Conservative Party should be “talking long and hard to their MPs about what sort of things they should be saying and briefing to journalists”,” said Ms Reeves.
Writing in The Independent, the shadow domestic violence minister Jess Phillips said: “The level of woman-loathing I have come across in politics is unrivalled by any place I have ever worked or lived.
“There are few jobs where what you wear or what kind of body you have are commented on throughout your working day, as if this were completely normal – and that is before the hatred, death and rape threats have even started.”
Former Tory minister Caroline Dinenage told The Independent she would welcome the Women and Equalities Committee on which she now sits taking up the issue of sexism and misogyny in political reporting.
“There is a real issue with which female MPs are treated in the media,” she said. “We can’t have women being put off from entering politics.
“When I was at the despatch box for the first time there was a sketch writer who wrote about what the male ministers said, but focused on what I looked like.”
Condemning sexist off-the-record briefings, Dame Caroline said: “We need to do more to change the culture. If you’re making direct reference to someone then you should at least have the balls to go on the record about it.”
The committee’s Tory chair Caroline Nokes said she had contacted the speaker over whether Mr Owen should retain his parliamentary pass, and was ready to call him for a grilling by the cross-party panel.
And another Conservative, Alicia Kearns, said women MPs were regularly the subject of “leering” comments, adding: “When women in politics are consistently demeaned and denigrated for their sex and appearance, misogynists across our country are empowered.”
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