Flings ain’t what they used to be

The last long-running Conservative government, led by John Major, succumbed to Labour 26 years ago, after a punishing five years of sex scandals. The list of Tory MPs who were forced to resign included: Tim Yeo for a love child out of wedlock; David Mellor for his affair with Antonia de Sancha; Steven Norris for having five mistresses; Hartley Booth, married but “seduced” into kissing and cuddling his 22-year-old researcher; Richard Spring in a three-in-a-bed romp with a man and a woman; married MP Jerry Hayes for an affair with an eighteen-year-old man (the age of consent had been 21 at the time).

Which of these would have been forced to resign today? I suspect only David Mellor, for the shame of the gory details, most of which were untrue (including the claim he wore a Chelsea shirt during sex). Which of these stories would have made the press today? Very few.

And here we are again in the sleazy dog days of a Conservative government. The latest MP drawn into Pestminster is Peter Bone, alleged to have indecently exposed himself in a hotel bathroom. He faces a Commons vote on his suspension. This follows the antics of several others: deputy chief whip Chris Pincher’s groping of two men at a private members’ club precipitated the fall of Boris Johnson, when he didn’t take it seriously; Daniel Korski was forced to withdraw as Conservative London mayoral candidate after he was accused of groping Daisy Goodwin; MP Neil Parish was out for viewing tractors and porn in the Commons, and Andrew Griffiths for raping his wife; Charlie Elphicke is in prison for three counts of sexual assault.

People didn’t believe any woman in her right mind would turn down the advances of a dashing Tory MP

There is one substantial difference between these two lists. Under the Major government, the scandals were about morality. I cannot recall a single incident of a Tory MP’s private life being the subject of an exposé for non-consensual advances on a woman or a man. They were pilloried for their assaults on family values, which were contrary to John Major’s Back to Basics agenda: a call for old-fashioned decency.

That doesn’t mean non-consensual sex wasn’t happening. It just didn’t reach the newspapers’ bar for exposé – partly because complaints from women weren’t taken as seriously back then. People didn’t believe any woman in her right mind would turn down the advances of a dashing Tory MP – just as Queen Victoria is supposed not to have believed in lesbians.

Between these two eras of Conservative government, a lot changed on where the line would be drawn. The phone-hacking scandal brought down the News of the World, followed by the Leveson Inquiry, which challenged newspapers to either respect privacy or be regulated. The 2016 PJS vs News Group Newspapers case, about a celebrity’s threesomes that the Sun wanted to print, went to the Supreme Court. In making its judgment, the court placed Article 8 of the European Human Rights Convention (the right to a private life) above Article 10 (the right to free expression).

So, which editor today would argue that David Mellor supposedly having sex in a Chelsea strip was justification to publish? It was a consensual relationship, so you could not push the public interest argument. So too was Matt Hancock’s liaison when he was caught on CCTV with his hands all over his adviser Gina Coladangelo. But Hancock’s case is a Pestminster exception because the justification for putting it in the public domain was that it proved he was breaking his own Covid social-distancing guidelines as health secretary.

What also changed was that Theresa May was the first prime minister to take sexual assault seriously. She set the bar pretty high when she accepted the 2017 resignation of then Defence Secretary Michael Fallon over the allegation he had lunged at a journalist fourteen years previously. This was shortly after the Harvey Weinstein stories broke and #MeToo was gathering pace. There was no criminal investigation but a new code of “ungentlemanliness” had arrived: you should not abuse your professional position to make advances on women.

The bar for allegations remains high today, but women and men now find more sympathetic ears in authority, who would rather deal with complaints promptly than let the papers get there first. In Peter Bone’s case, the allegations only became public after it was announced he would be facing a vote to suspend him from the Commons.

Parliament may be a pit of pests and worse than many other workplaces for predatory behaviour because of the mix of power, odd hours and subsidised alcohol. But reported allegations may also be high because MPs’ public profiles and frequent proselytising make it harder for their victims to forget. It’s difficult to move on if you see your tormentor being holier-than-thou in government, knowing they behave the opposite way in private. In other walks of life, handsy types disappear.

Westminster should be a goldfish bowl for standards in modern life. If those who make the laws on equality and harassment don’t uphold them, it is correct that they are the first to be held to account, regardless of the parliamentary culture.

But it’s worth reflecting on the fact those standards have fundamentally changed within a generation; and laws on privacy and sexual equality – the criminalisation of rape within marriage, the lowering of the age of consent – have redefined the tabloid sex scandal.

There are often accusations now that some kind of Victorian morality has returned. But quite the opposite is true: we are far more relaxed with people getting filthy with one another, providing proper consent has been obtained.

Joy Lo Dico writes for the Financial Times

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Columns, November 2023, Viewpoint

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