Why should Damian Green have to apologise? The former First Secretary of State had an extremely awkward interview on the Today programme this morning in which he offered one of those ‘I’m sorry if’ qualified apologies for his behaviour towards Conservative activist Kate Maltby. ‘If she felt uncomfortable… then obviously I’m sorry about that,’ he said, before adding: ‘But I should emphasise again as I have done throughout that I didn’t believe I did anything inappropriate, still don’t.’
Green reminded listeners that he was sacked from the government for being misleading in a statement about pornography on computers in his parliamentary office, not for asking Maltby for a drink after seeing a photo of her in a corset, or for an incident in which Maltby alleged he touched her knee. This is true: the Cabinet Office investigation described Maltby’s account as ‘plausible’, but said it was impossible to reach a verdict on what had actually happened. So why should he give a full, meaningful apology for the two incidents involving Maltby?
Green was one of the most high-profile political scalps of the #MeToo scandal this winter. We’ll be exploring whether the response to the sexual harassment allegations has gone too far or whether it’s a long overdue correction for women’s equality at a Spectator event that I’m chairing on 22 March, where no doubt this case will come up. It is certainly the case that the allegations against Green went much further than Maltby herself intended: she wrote in the Times that the minister clearly had no idea how uncomfortable he had made her, and then watched as the scandal moved from an assassination on her own character to a resurrection of old evidence of pornography from the police.
In a very strict sense, Green shouldn’t have to apologise if he still believes he did nothing wrong. But that’s not really the most gracious way of operating. All of us find ourselves apologising for inadvertent rudeness of one kind or another that has nothing to do with sexual harassment. Sometimes we see in retrospect that we really shouldn’t have said what we did. Often we privately feel rather aggrieved that we have to say sorry for upsetting someone when we don’t think we did anything wrong at all. But all relationships, whether professional or social, are difficult and even thoughtful people can find that they’ve put their big clodhopping foot in it. It is also fair to say that social mores are changing and that women of Maltby’s generation just don’t think that texts about drinks and corsets are OK any more. Others may disagree, but surely the politest thing to do is to accept that someone did find your behaviour was inappropriate and apologise, just to draw a line under the matter?
Even if Green were thinking only of his own peace of mind rather than that of Maltby’s, saying sorry for inappropriate behaviour would draw a line under the matter as a story. But refusing to concede the very point about appropriateness means debate continues to rage. Green can probably live with a few more days of column inches about his attitude, but what is more widely damaging is the way these grey area cases always end up dominating coverage. This allows those opponents of equality to suggest that #MeToo is always about women not taking a compliment or behaving like helpless victims rather than adults with their own agency. And the reason opponents of equality like to build this straw man is that it means they can dismiss real and necessary changes in society, like proper, independent processes in Parliament for reporting and investigating harassment claims, rather than opaque and disorganised internal party processes. It means they can gloss over the statistics about domestic abuse, or about stalking, or about sexual assault because everyone is too distracted by a story which the complainant herself made very clear was not the worst thing to happen to a woman. Even if Green is mad as hell with Maltby for making claims that he genuinely doesn’t recognise, he might still have struck a blow for the women who are still never listened to or believed.