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When I graduated from university and moved back to London, I prepared myself for a tedious introduction to working life. Friends already in corporate jobs had explained that my first few weeks in the office would be spent filling out ridiculously complicated forms for an unspecified member of “HR”, going to ghastly “team-building” exercises, and pretending to study weighty manuals on appropriate workplace conduct.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. After graduating, I was employed as a Parliamentary researcher, and working in Westminster – to put it mildly – isn’t really like working anywhere else. During my first week, I met a group of young researchers (from other offices) who gave me an excellent tour of the various drinking establishments in “The Bubble”, and a detailed run-down of who was sleeping with who in each of the four office blocks. Wandering around Portcullis House, I asked one why one office door was shut when all the others were open, and was answered with a knowing chuckle – apparently, the first rule of parliament was not to ask what went on behind closed doors. As far as team-building went, getting very drunk in the Sports and Social bar with various MPs and staff seemed to suffice.
We all know that sex and power are intrinsically linked in the human psyche, and navigating the murky space between is often tricky – both for employers and employees. But in Parliament, where none of the normal rules apply, “tricky” becomes almost impossible. If I were given the task of artificially creating the perfect conditions for a sex scandal, I would replicate the Houses of Parliament.
Power-loving MPs are given a free reign to employ whomever they wish, and aren’t required to justify their decisions to anyone. The researchers, who tend to be young, ambitious and desperate to make their mark, have often been steeped in university “lad culture” for their whole adult lives, and have little or no understanding of what does and does not constitute professional behaviour. Strange hours (Parliament can sit between 2pm and 10:30pm on a Monday, for instance) mean that the line between day-time work and night-time leisure is automatically blurred, and it’s common practice for MPs to drink with their staff in the various watering holes around parliament between evening votes.
Add to this toxic mix the fact that there is no parliamentary HR team to guide new MPs who may have very little management experience, and it’s small wonder that the scandal which is engulfing SW1 has been greeted with weary exasperation by past and present Westminster employees alike.
The Prime Minister has tried to stay one step ahead by calling for the establishment of a new grievance procedure to deal with complaints of misconduct in Westminster – but if she thinks that will work, she can’t have grasped the breadth of the issue. Like the Harvey Weinstein scandal, MP sex pest stories are causing ripples not because we all thought that Hollywood and Westminster were bastions of morality – we didn’t – but because, as the writer Naomi Wolf puts it, the accusers have ripped a hole in the fabric of the patriarchy.
Women have realised that the “micro-aggressions” they’ve quietly endured for years are actually causes for serious outrage, and are often punishable by law. All of a sudden, Nigel, that bloke who got too handsy at a party, is no longer a tiresome bore to be avoided in the corridor, but a “Part of The Problem” to be publicly shamed – and preferably locked up.
Unfortunately for the leadership, that means that the problem extends far beyond the WhatsApp group of incensed female staffers, or Guido Fawkes’ infamous “dirty dossier”. Allegations will come in waves, and once the 2017 intake have had their say, we’ll start hearing from those who worked in parliament in the 2000s, 1990s, 80s and 70s.
And the stories will flow. When I got chatting to a family friend about her experiences of parliament in Thatcher’s day, she told me that after one memorable drinking session on the terrace, a sitting MP proposed that the group of them went back to his flat to “carry on the high-jinks”. He suggested that the group should take the first taxi, and he and my friend, who was 22 at the time, should follow. When they got back to his flat and found no one else there, she made her excuses to leave, but was told to sit tight while he made them a couple of drinks. Five minutes later, he returned completely naked, carrying a martini. When, startled, she tried to leave, he chased her around the dining room table. She got away unscathed, went to work as usual the next day, and never breathed a word of the encounter.
My friend laughed the whole thing off, but I imagine there are others who would not.
Theresa May, Andrea Leadsom (leader of the House of Commons) and Speaker John Bercow are now facing a huge challenge: deciding what happens next. If the matter isn’t tackled quickly, then the story has the potential to blow up to the proportions of the expenses scandal – and beyond – before anyone has realised what is going on. But taking the matter in hand, when you’re dealing with hundreds of allegations which vary hugely in severity, is easier said than done.
While some MPs will have actually broken sexual harassment laws, others, like Stephen Crabb, will have simply behaved in a way which most people would deem unacceptable for a married, sitting MP. Still others will have committed no wrong-doing at all, but will be caught up in the scandal because a misjudged remark made back in the 80s is now deemed to be politically incorrect by a vocal and social-media savvy member of “Generation Snowflake”.
Distinguishing between the three and disciplining them accordingly would be tough work for even the strongest Prime Minister. Doing it from a position of weakness, with the social media mob breathing down her neck, will be nigh on impossible. It’s been an awful year for Theresa May, but the worst of it may yet be to come.