“The public expect MPs to conduct themselves to the highest possible standards,” the Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, told the Commons in as stern a tone as she could summon.
It was an unfortunate choice of phrase to begin her statement on sexual harassment at Westminster. If the public expect MPs to conduct themselves to the highest possible standards, the public needs a severe lesson in expectation management. Lesson one: pick up literally any single newspaper printed at any point in the last 100 years, and write down the names of any MP you see not conducting themselves to the highest possible standards.
That a list of 36 MPs and various allegations of sexual misconduct against them suddenly doing the rounds among journalists should also mark the moment at which MPs are going to get serious about this decades-old problem in their ranks could arguably be yet more evidence of these “highest possible standards” to which they are held.
Leadsom said that action must be taken in “days not weeks”. She was responding to an urgent question from Harriet Harman. Valerie Vaz, Shadow Leader of the House, spoke to add to her disgust at it all. Anna Soubry was appalled. Stella Creasy was disgusted.
A full 34 minutes had passed before a single male voice had joined the debate.
This issue has been rightly framed as a question of power. “No woman coming to work in this House should have to fend off unwanted sexual advances from men in positions of power over them,” Harman said.
They spoke of bringing in HR professionals to conduct interviews for researchers. Of guaranteeing anonymity for anyone who complained, from lowly researcher to female journalist.
It is a statement of fact that the balance of power in Westminster, as in the rest of the world, is not equitably split along gender lines.
Is it therefore acceptable to wonder whether the entirely right and righteous anger of Westminster’s female minority will, by itself, have power enough to draw upon to change the dreary, dreadful ways of certain men?
In recent days, the same names have been muttered in quiet corners in Westminster, the anonymity thus far protected not by cowardice but libel laws. These faces were not, for the most part, staring up from the green benches on Monday afternoon.
That the public have such a low opinion of MPs, by the way, is not that they are of a lower moral quality than people in any other walk of life. Rather, they walk the same corridors, queue up in the same canteens, as a cadre of people dedicated to not much more than seeking to bring them down. And very often, they succeed.
If such dismal activities still manage to thrive in such conditions, I hope it is not considered sexist to take a cynical view on whether change really is going to come.
One of the more enjoyable theories of recent political punditry times is the idea that Eric Joyce headbutted the nation’s lights out on a drunken night in the Strangers Bar in Westminster five years ago.
Joyce, who was the Labour MP for Falkirk, headbutted Tory MP Stuart Andrew, then for good measure punched his own party whip Phil Wilson, and very shortly after decided he would not contest the next election.
The notorious Labour selection fight for Falkirk followed. The Labour left were accused seeking to rig the contest in their favour, a course of action that ended with Ed Miliband amending Labour party rules to include the £3 fee to vote in leadership elections.
From there comes Jeremy Corbyn, from Jeremy Corbyn comes Jeremy Corbyn’s abysmal EU referendum campaign, from there comes Brexit, and the nation standing on the precipice of its own self-administered destruction.
Now, Westminster watchers ponder over the prospect of whose wandering hands might bring down the May Government.
Should that happen, David Davis is still seen as the most credible successor.
He’s a chap who not so long ago campaigned for the Tory leadership by posing with young women in campaign T-shirts with “DD” for David Davis written across their breasts.
Meanwhile, you almost have to stop yourself in the street to remember, as this scandal continues to unfold, there sits in the White House a President who bragged of sexual assaults past straight down a TV microphone, then won an election a few weeks later.
If you think this problem is going anywhere, 2018 might just offer a fitting tableau of political power for you – up to the very highest standards, of course.
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