As I walked out of the bar, I noticed a Conservative MP following me. It had been an evening for young political activists, mostly teenage boys, and it was drawing to an end. I pretended to be engrossed in my phone, but the MP — well-liked, universally respected — lurched towards me, placing his arm around my waist and leaning in close. I could smell the whisky and cigars on his breath. ‘I’m just going to the toilet,’ he slurred, winking and gesturing at the gents. I had only worked in and around Parliament for a year, but had been on the receiving end of enough unwanted advances from male Tory MPs to know exactly what he was proposing.
The Lord Rennard scandal has this week sparked much debate about the role of women in politics. Female Liberal Democrat members say their party is a ‘no-go zone’ for girls. Yet young men too can find themselves in the sights of less-than-Honourable Members. I’m blond-haired, blue-eyed and a newcomer in his early twenties. Gay Conservative backbenchers are eager for my company. The unfortunate fact that I am straight seems moot. As another twentysomething Westminster insider of similar appearance once told me, ‘We are their type.’
One of my closest calls was when I agreed to take a taxi home with a still (somehow) closeted Tory MP. We were both quite drunk. ‘Where do you live?’ he asked. I told him my south London postcode. He said that was near him and suggested we share a ride. We got into the taxi, whereupon he told the driver an address in north London. I made a few nervous noises. ‘Oh do come in for another drink,’ he implored. ‘It’s early.’ I said it was 2 a.m. and we both had work in the morning, but he persisted. I was reduced to fabricating a girlfriend who I had to meet. The lie worked but I was left with a 45-minute journey back south, and he stuck me with the whole bill.
Predatory Tory MPs are most commonly found in Parliament’s Strangers’ Bar. It is the perfect location in many ways: a prime location in the Palace of Westminster where only Members and their guests are permitted entry, with access to the terrace for views of the river and central London. The rules at Strangers’ dictate that only MPs can buy drinks, so if a young guest wants a pint, he needs to find a Member to sponsor him. So almost every night, Strangers’ plays host to gay Tory MPs on the lookout for fresh meat. Standing in the middle of the room, hands clasped behind their backs and beer bellies sucked in, they survey the crowd. Parliamentary staff know this only too well: getting into Strangers’ is seen as a ticket to free drinks all evening. This scene is played out with most vigour on the eve of recess, when most MPs have gone home to their families but Parliament’s bachelors stick around to party with their staff, for whom school is out.
If things have gone well at Strangers’, it is on to the downmarket Players piano bar in Charing Cross for the MPs and their new friends. (I know one Honourable Member who keeps a leather jacket and skin-tight leather trousers in his office in case he needs something more appropriate to wear.) Players is often the place where gay MPs, sufficiently lubricated, decide to make their move. It was there that one Tory, a headline name, decided to run his hand up my thigh as the pianist played songs from Cabaret. Come for the mediocre musical entertainment, stay for the wandering hands of Westminster’s campest.
Whispers about lecherous MPs spread around Parliament like wildfire, so those with a reputation need a back-up plan. This is provided by way of the Young Conservative university circuit. Tory MPs often travel to campuses up and down the country to speak to members of their party’s youth wing. A hotbed of 18-year-old political geeks for whom meeting a Member of Parliament is like coming face to face with a rock star. Some MPs know this full well, and play on it. One Tory backbencher would visit my old university regularly, each time selecting a few bright-eyed political virgins to stay with him for the weekend at his home in the country. They never came back quite the same.
Judging by the stories I hear from those who have had the misfortune of being more familiar with politicians’ attentions than me, I have got off lightly. There are concerning reports of an MP getting aggressive when a researcher he had bought drinks for refused to go home with him, and of staffers having to leave their jobs with MPs because their working relationships became untenable. There are even rumours of gay sexual assaults and victims considering going to the police. With the culture of inappropriate behaviour of Tory MPs towards young men that exists in Westminster, a scandal would come as no surprise.