For those with short memories…

For those with short memories…

On Channel 4 news Jacob Rees-Mogg referred to Lord Salisbury as an example of a PM who lost a Chancellor and went onto remain for PM as years. This de haut en bas history nugget was dismissed by Sir Bob Neill who tartly observed that voters did not care about a government from 120 years ago. But before Labour get too self-righteous about the awful culture Boris has presided over, it is worth remembering that back in 2018 retired judge, Dame Laura Cox wrote a withering report about the culture in the House of Commons and how MPs of all parties treated their staff. It can be read here and deals specifically with sexual harassment.

Despite the 1995 Nolan Committee report on Standards in Public Life making it clear that MPs had to display the highest standards and that “it is essential for public confidence that they they should be seen to do so”, the Cox report describes an entrenched culture “cascading from the top down, of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence, in which bullying and sexual harassment have been able to thrive and have long been tolerated and concealed.” Processes and policies, no matter what fluffy names they are given (Cox is particularly critical of the “Valuing Others” policy) are described as not fit for purpose and not even compliant with existing laws on harassment and discrimination, let alone best practice. Investigations are inadequate and carried out by amateurs. Confidentiality is not respected, staff are fearful and unsupported and retaliation – or threats of it – are common.

The report made for grim reading. Even grimmer was the defensive reaction of MPs and senior staff at the Commons at the very idea of having to take action beyond the token. The House of Commons considered itself a special case though, as Cox acidly pointed out, while “Members of Parliament are elected representatives…their mandate does not entitle them to bully or harass those who are employed….to support and assist them.

One person in particular was very defensive – the then Speaker, John Bercow, possibly because, as we learnt in March this year, his own behaviour was, frankly, pretty appalling. The report describes his behaviour as an “abuse of power” and that he had been “widely unreliable and repeatedly dishonest in his evidence. He has attempted to defeat these complaints by false accusations of collusion and by advancing lies.” Goodness me! A liar in a senior position in Parliament! The horror – or, rather, the tiresome predictability of finding people at the top arrogant, self-serving and willing to lie to protect themselves.

Worse was that a number of Labour MPs (Emily Thornberry, for instance) sought to defend Bercow, despite calls for him to quit at the time of the Cox report because, as Dame Margaret Beckett put it so succinctly “Brexit trumps bad behaviour“. Boris’s defenders could not put it better themselves. When it comes to it, MPs of whatever party, no matter how high-minded they can be when it’s their opponents in trouble, will overlook pretty much anything if they can justify it in pursuit of a higher cause (usually their job) and the polls have not turned against them. And, in truth, it’s only the last issue which really matters to them. Pincher’s groping hands, Boris’s parties and his repeated lies would be mere footnotes if the Tories were still consistently ahead in the polls.

Well, Bercow has gone, Johnson may be gone too and the Cox Report has certainly disappeared without trace with little or no action having been taken. According to a recent review, Parliamentary staff have the same concerns now as they did 4 years ago. This last point ought to shame MPs of all parties. It won’t of course and staff, visitors and others will continue to face bullying, harassment, unwanted advances and dreadful behaviour which should have no place in a civilised workplace.

Dame Laura pointed out that problems should not be ignored: “This cycle of repeatedly reacting to crises only after they have developed into crises, and sometimes only after unwelcome publicity, is a perilous approach to adopt for any organisation, but it is completely hopeless for a place of work.” How prescient. And not just for places of work but for political parties too and No 10, which identifies as a place of work but struggles mightily to make itself look convincing.

Will Parliament and its MPs change even after Boris has gone? They say they will. Starmer and Rayner have made their FPN promise. Chris Bryant has made many fine speeches on integrity. Javid has found his spine again. Patrick Grady has been stripped of the SNP whip after Blackford initially told his MPs to defend him.

But look at the lack of real action since October 2018. Or this decision by the Met on the Patrick Grady allegations: according to this report, the Met will take no further action because the victim fears reprisals which will impact his already “intolerable working environment“.

It’s not just Boris of whom these words could be said:

“Oh, yes, yes, in THERE. I’d have said anything in THERE. You’re so eloquent and so moving, and so convincing, and put all your points so frightfully well—you can do what you like with me in THERE, and you know it. But I’ve been searching my mind since, and going over things in it, and I find that I’m not a bit sorry or repentant really, so it’s no earthly good saying I am; now, is it?”


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