The Westminster sleaze row shows no signs of dying down with today’s papers filled with more tales of MPs behaving badly. The Telegraph warns that the Parliament sex scandal ‘could be worse than expenses’ – reporting that two female staff stopped working for a minister over claims of inappropriate behaviour. Meanwhile the Sun leads on Michael Fallon’s admission that he once touched a female journalist’s leg.
That journalist – Julia Hartley-Brewer – has since come forward to say that she does not count the incident as harassment. At the time, she told the Defence Secretary she would punch him if he touched her leg again, and he duly refrained from doing so again:
‘I have had no issues since with the man in question and do not regard the incident as anything but mildly amusing.
I believe it is absurd and wrong to treat workplace banter and flirting – and even misjudged sexual overtures – between consenting adults as being morally equivalent to serious sexual harassment or assault.’
It’s the distinction between what constitutes sexual harassment and assault and what constitutes an unsuccessful – if ill-judged – pass that government and Commons officials need to work out how to deal with as they address the unfolding scandal. The infamous spreadsheet doing the rounds in Parliament contains many names of so-called sex pests. But their sins vary greatly – from consensual extra-marital affairs to inappropriate behaviour towards junior members of staff.
This has led to claims of a ‘witch-hunt’ among some MPs who feel as though the slightest misadventure in the past could now be brought back to ruin their career. Looking at the papers today, there appear to be two stories being covered under the bracket of Westminster sleaze – one of out-of-step Westminster dinosaurs and another of MPs using their position to prey on younger more junior women. If the former are the stories that receive the most attention, there’s a risk that the allegations of women having to leave their jobs with little to no support will be drowned out and won’t be treated with the seriousness they deserve.