The “Pestminster” scandal, as a Twitter hashtag puts it, has gripped parliament. A list of anonymous Tory MPs alleged to be guilty of inappropriate sexual behaviour and sexual harassment was circulating early this week. Not long afterwards, a Labour activist alleged that she had been raped by a senior party official and discouraged from reporting the incident.
“Some names have been circulating for years”, says Isabel Hardman in The Spectator, but it’s only since the Harvey Weinstein affair broke that people in other industries realise “they don’t have to just grin and bear bad behaviour”. They can also “see it’s better to stick your head above the parapet as a group”. Individual accusations are likely to be “shot down by the sort of people who reject any allegation as ‘harmless fun’”.
“The archaic ways of the Palace of Westminster are well known,” says Suzanne Moore in The Guardian. When I first went there, I was told to “wear a short skirt” and catch the eye of male MPs if I wanted a story. Indeed, predatory behaviour “has been so acceptable that this information is known and used by party whips to keep these harassers in line”. And all this sets the tone for public life. “If disrespect for women is tolerated at the heart of government, it will be tolerated everywhere.”
“Much about the Houses of Parliament inadvertently makes harassment possible,” adds Sebastian Payne in the Financial Times. MPs are essentially small business owners who run their own offices, so they have a great deal of leeway when it comes to hiring staff and fending off complaints.
Just like the media and entertainment industries, “the profession is built on power”, and the potential for abuse of power is clear. If this imbroglio turns into a “full-blown scandal”, it could prove as damaging to the credibility of British politics as the 2008 expenses scandal, “from which Westminster is still struggling to recover”. You may think it would be hard for MPs to fall even further in the public’s estimation, but don’t count on it.
However, there’s also a chance that it could “fizzle out rather than ignite”, says Stephen Bush in The New Statesman. In the list of Tory MPs, several types of behaviour “are being lumped together”. Gossip about consensual affairs is being conflated with accusations of unprofessional, or even criminal, behaviour. This could become a slanging match rather than a coherent case. “Pools are being muddied” and the key problem – politicians taking advantage of their power over their staff – “is at risk of being drowned out”.