Porn claims, sexual misconduct, sleazy smears show Commons desperately needs more women MPs. Here's how to make that happen – Susan Dalgety

There is something rotten at the very heart of our society. Earlier this week, two Conservative women MPs, one of them a government minister, told a meeting that they had seen a fellow Tory MP watching porn on his phone in the House of Commons chamber, and during a committee hearing.

Will Boris Johnson act to clean up UK's sleazy politics or does he simply not care? (Picture: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
Will Boris Johnson act to clean up UK's sleazy politics or does he simply not care? (Picture: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

Let’s not be coy about this. Unless there’s been some huge misunderstanding, an MP was watching lurid sex scenes to get aroused. If he was simply bored, he would have been browsing the BBC News website or watching Homes Under the Hammer.

And he was allegedly indulging in his filthy habit in arguably one of the most hallowed places in the land, where life and death decisions about our country have been made since the Middle Ages.

It has been the scene of some of the most momentous moments in world history, and survived a gunpowder plot, a revolution and Nazi bombing. Great men and women have been honoured to sit on its green benches, which may now have been sullied by a priapic plonker masquerading as a representative of the people.

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In any other workplace, the MP would have been immediately suspended, pending an urgent investigation. But today’s Tory Party is led by a man who until recently wouldn’t – or couldn’t – confirm how many children he has fathered, and who once, allegedly, had sex with a lover in his family home while his wife was out.

Instead of showing leadership, Boris Johnson dithered, with his chief whip looking into the matter, then referring it to the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme. Johnson’s reluctance made the matter worse, giving the impression that he does not take allegations of such sordid behaviour seriously enough to act. Or worse, does not really care.

It was only yesterday afternoon that news broke that Neil Parish MP had been suspended from the parliamentary party and had referred himself for investigation by the Commons Standards Committee.

The revelations came shortly after the publication of a widely criticised story, briefed by Johnson’s supporters, that claimed Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner crossed and uncrossed her legs to distract Johnson during Prime Minister’s Questions.

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The fact that the Prime Minister’s cheerleaders felt comfortable spinning such a desperate smear, and that a national Sunday newspaper was happy to report it, is very telling about the sexist and misogynist culture that pervades our politics. As is the report that 56 MPs, including three Cabinet ministers, are currently facing allegations of sexual misconduct.

And unacceptable behaviour is not confined to one party, or even one sex. There are two Labour shadow Cabinet ministers said to be on the list of 56 MPs, and it was recently reported that complaints about sexual harassment against two SNP MPs, Patrick Grady and Patricia Gibson, have been upheld.

Nor is the sleaze only found at Westminster. Two years ago, one of Nicola Sturgeon’s closest allies, and the man tipped to be the next First Minister, Derek Mackay, had to resign as Finance Secretary because of salacious messages he sent a teenage boy.

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And the SNP has still to fully recover from the sorry tale of former First Minister, Alex Salmond, who was found not guilty of 12 charges of attempted rape, sexual assault and indecent assault, with a not proven verdict for a further charge of sexual assault with intent to rape.

The former MSP and now Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, made a feeble attempt to explain his colleagues’ gross behaviour by blaming it all on alcohol. “My advice to any MP is, actually, avoid the bars, finish your day’s work and go home,” he told Times Radio earlier this week.

A better response would have been to say that his party has a zero-tolerance approach towards sexual misconduct, that watching porn in the chamber should be an instantly sackable offence and that women must be afforded the same professional respect his male colleagues take for granted.

Attorney General Suella Braverman was more thoughtful in her analysis, suggesting that bad behaviour by politicians was linked to a wider malaise in society, asking a question that will resonate with many. “How have we got to a place in our society where watching pornography on the Tube, in public, in front of children, in parliament, in the workplace has become somehow normalised for some people?”

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And on Thursday at Holyrood, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said it was time for men to change. “Not all men are misogynists,” she said, “But misogyny comes from men.”

Powerful men behaving badly is not a new phenomenon. Nor is pornography a creation of the digital age. But something has changed if a Member of Parliament feels comfortable enough to watch porn in full view of his female colleagues.

The claims were made at a meeting of the 2022 group, set up by women Conservative MPs to improve the gender balance in their party. Perhaps the most practical way we can change our toxic political culture is to improve the gender balance in all parties, and at all levels of government.

I argued in this column last week for the introduction of mandatory quotas so that we could achieve equal representation, because I firmly believe that if at least half of the members of every council chamber and both our parliaments were women, the prevailing political culture would change. And so would society. The events of the last seven days have only strengthened my belief.

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I doubt if either Nicola Sturgeon or Boris Johnson have the political courage, or capital, to introduce mandatory quotas, but they are bound to come.

Perhaps the Labour Party will take up the cause. Indeed, it would be derelict of the people’s party not to, because all the evidence shows quotas work, with countries across the world, from Greece to Libya, Ireland to Mexico, now using some form of quota system to ensure enough women take their rightful place as legislators. It’s time for the “mother” of parliaments to follow suit.

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