Will Tories' moral meltdown, epitomised by watching porn in Commons, spark a fightback against their toxic policies? – Joyce McMillan

When the Angela Rayner story first appeared on the UK’s political horizon five days ago, it seemed in many ways like the Westminster narrative with everything, both for friends of the present government, and for its enemies.

For those throwbacks to an earlier age still titillated by the idea of women MPs with legs, it had that McGill-postcard element of sexual naughtiness that many British newspapers still seem unable to resist.

For those middle-class types raised, as so many sadly are, to regard the British working class as either a joke or a malign threat, it had the added frisson of class – a reassertion of an old pattern of dominance over the bodies, and the fate of working-class women.

And the whole story of course demonstrated the masterly arts of distraction now being practised by a UK Government in deep trouble, politically, economically and morally; indeed the manner in which this story came to exist at all, and to receive so much attention, shows a political and media establishment mired in a deep crisis of mutual complicity.

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Yet the substance of the story, and the attitudes it revealed, were also deeply disturbing; and by the end of the week, it was increasingly clear that this concocted tale about Labour’s deputy leader was only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to dysfunctional sexual attitudes, in the parliamentary Tory Party in particular.

On Wednesday, Green MP Caroline Lucas drew attention to the fact that 56 male MPs – one in eight – were under investigation on allegations of sexual misconduct, including three Cabinet ministers; and she had barely finished speaking when two women Conservative MP’s revealed that they had witnessed a Tory colleague watching pornographic material on his mobile phone during Commons business, and continuing to do so even when he became fully aware that they had seen him.

Now of course, the current wave of allegations surrounding behaviour in the Commons is partly to do with the recent bringing to light of patterns of patriarchal abuse that can be traced back for centuries.

Yet the widespread survival of those attitudes into the 21st century is beginning to seem like a florid symptom of an even deeper malaise; and it strikes me that if and when the history of this grim period comes to be written, the current parliamentary Conservative Party will emerge as one of the least impressive bodies of MPs ever elected, when it comes to the real defence of the interests of their constituents.

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Two female Conservative MPs have revealed a Tory colleague watched pornographic material on his mobile phone during Commons business (Picture: Spencer Platt/Newsmakers/Getty Images)

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Their very presence in parliament, after all, as approved candidates in the 2019 election, was in most cases dependent on their willingness to become complicit with the big lie that what Britain needed was to “get Brexit done”.

Then there is the extent to which those MPs have been expected, ever since December 2019, simply to defend the indefensible; from the party culture at Downing Street during lockdown, to the completion this week of a string of profoundly authoritarian legislation – on refugee rights, voting rights, the independence of the Electoral Commission, the right to demonstrate, and the basic right to free NHS health care – that would make any real “conservative” blanch.

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Some Tory MPs are perhaps in full and enthusiastic agreement with all of this, and feel easy in their souls about the profoundly reactionary political project of which they are part.

There must be many others, though, who are simply along for the ride, as the whip-driven foot-soldiers of the Johnson era, treated like useful idiots by a notably overbearing and inconsistent Prime Minister.

Some, at worst, are part of that sniggering cohort of self-conscious reactionaries whose very raison d’être is to bait and mock all of the liberal advances of the last two generations, from the dissolution of the British Empire to the growing empowerment of women.

And if that is the schoolboy culture in which they are involved – class-ridden, sexist, often racist, and itself riddled with internal patterns of bullying and hierarchy – then it is perhaps a short step to those immature forms of sexual behaviour that involve trying to enhance one’s own sense of power, as a junior male in a brutal pecking-order, by leering at and harassing women in the workplace, not least through the apparently ever more popular activity of watching porn in public, in plain sight of female co-workers.

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For of course, the culture indulged in by some of our male parliamentarians does not stop in parliament. Wherever men feel disempowered and humiliated, women tend to suffer; and the more our official workplace culture rejects sexism and sexual harassment, the more a brutal and failing economic system, upheld and epitomised by the present government, keeps creating the circumstances that damage all workers, and make it more likely that some men will take their humiliation out on female co-workers or employees.

From day to day, in other words, it becomes increasingly evident that the UK now needs to stage a wholesale ballot-box revolution against Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party and all it has come to represent: the lies, the scams, the contempt for law and regulation that exists to protect the vulnerable, the abuse of executive power, the kow-towing to the wealthy, the cruel attacks on the poor.

And of course, there is also the ruthless use of media power to perpetuate culture wars that divide us, one from another, and seek to humiliate and insult female politicians like Angela Rayner for even daring to exist.

Perhaps, in next week’s council elections, that fight-back against this government, and the toxic culture and economy over which it presides, will begin; and if it does not – well then, it will be the worse for all of us in these islands, for many years to come.

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