The news is dominated by tales of ‘sexual misconduct’ by men in positions of power, and nowhere is the smell of sleaze as strong as in Westminster. Our politicians work in a building formally known as a ‘palace’ where they are often treated like kings — and, occasionally, behave like them. Even more occasionally, the rest of the world catches a glimpse of what is going on.
There has always been a certain tolerance of sexual misbehaviour, which is more often the subject of jokes than outrage. One Tory minister is teased by his colleagues for blowing his parliamentary staff budget on hiring a beautiful researcher, only to find her turn up for work having acquired a large engagement ring. Yet not so long ago, women were amazed when a fellow MP notorious for his groping received a career promotion.
Among themselves, MPs can be remarkably forgiving about lechery — while condemning it without reservation in the outside world. It is a form of institutional hypocrisy, and no one does it better than the Liberal Democrats. The rumours about Lord Rennard, former chief executive of the Lib Dems, had circulated for years: women had complained, but were ignored. In Westminster, things are usually left there. Most of SW1’s bright young things — male or female — are ambitious and have no desire to be involved in a sex scandal. It’s joked about but never formally mentioned. The omertà even includes female journalists, who tend not to report the lechery they experience: one Lib Dem peer is notorious for asking reporters to wear certain clothes before meeting him for lunch and even looking under the table to inspect their skirts. In the real world, such behaviour would be unthinkable — but these are Westminster rules. What happens in Westminster stays in Westminster. And that attitude hardens when the parties head off for their annual shindigs. ‘It doesn’t count as cheating if it happens at conference’ is a line many a young female politico has had whispered in her ear.
It seems that Nick Clegg applied Westminster rules when he first heard concerns about sexual harassment by Lord Rennard more than four years ago. There were, he says now, ‘no very specific allegations’ — so there was no proper investigation. But the question he is facing is not just whether Rennard groped a woman at a party, or locked one in his home until she threatened to call the police. The question is whether the Liberal Democrats have been dismissing such complaints, and turning a blind eye when their own officials are guilty of the behaviour they affect to despise.
It is certainly not limited to Rennard. Nick Clegg received a written complaint about the behaviour of one of his MPs in March 2011, in a case that says much about the Lib Dems’ attitudes to sexual harassment. Clegg was informed that Mike Hancock, Member for Portsmouth South, ‘cannot be trusted and is a liability to women, public and your party’. The letter was from one of his constituents, who showed me a copy. Not only was there no investigation; there was not even the courtesy of a reply.
Annie (not her real name) approached Hancock in 2009 over problems with noisy neighbours and respite care for her son. She told him about her mental health problems (brought about by childhood sexual abuse) and that she had been diagnosed with a ‘borderline personality disorder’. Over the following months Hancock began to see Annie regularly, to buy her gifts, including a teddy bear he named ‘Mike’, and once took her out to dinner at the House of Commons. Hancock would send Annie regular text messages, all of which she has kept. Such as: ‘Please give me a chance you never know my Princess xxx’ and ‘…you are special and sexy to me’.
Annie did not want a sexual relationship, and felt confused that such a powerful man had shown an interest in her. The following summer Annie broke down and told her family support worker about Hancock’s behaviour, and gave her permission to report him to the police. ‘I made a statement to police but something about their response left me wondering if anything would be done about him,’ she told me. ‘Hancock is such a powerful man after all.’
She went to the press and the police. Hancock was arrested. He has always vigorously denied any misconduct, and the Crown Prosecution Service decided there was insufficient evidence to proceed. Annie approached a civil action lawyer, who wrote to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. But she encountered Westminster rules again: she was told that the Committee ‘cannot consider the way a Member deals with a particular constituent’s case, and nor does the code extend to a Member’s private and personal life’. Annie had thought the code obliged MPs to ‘maintain and strengthen the public’s trust’. As she puts it: ‘I went to him as my MP. I didn’t meet him at a party. He immediately began to go after me. What else do you call giving a present of a teddy bear sprayed with his aftershave?’
But if the Commons watchdog could not take action, she believed that the Liberal Democrat party would. Parties can, after all, withdraw the whip from anyone they regard as an embarrassment — as Nadine Dorries found out. She was stripped of the right to call herself a Tory MP after appearing on a reality TV show. So perhaps the Lib Dems would take similar action against Hancock. But the Lib Dems did not want to know. If the police and Commons authorities had not acted, they told Annie, neither would they.
In despair, Annie sent details of Hancock’s behaviour directly to Lib Dem-led Ports-mouth City Council, where he sits on several high-profile committees. They replied that their investigation protocol was complicated (they blamed the new Localism Act) and would be dealt with by a subcommittee. Five months later, nothing has happened — because Hancock has repeatedly requested adjournments on grounds of ill health. On 1 February, the day that the subcommittee was due to meet to consider the complaint, Hancock was working at his constituency office, and during the afternoon attended a meeting with local traders.
Annie is not the first to find out that the Lib Dems have a tin ear for such matters. One former councillor, John Thompson, told me that he had sent a letter to the then party leader Paddy Ashdown, he of the famous nickname, expressing concern about Hancock’s behaviour in the 1990s, but that no response was ever received. It seems to have been filed in the same wastebasket as Lord Rennard’s case, from a party that seems willing to excuse anything from its powerful figures or MPs with large majorities.
One female parliamentary researcher who, unsurprisingly, has asked not to be named, told me that Westminster is still a ‘hostile environment to women, and almost like the Dark Ages’. No one dares, according to her, make complaints against male MPs for sexual harassment, ‘for fear of being targeted, ridiculed or even sacked’. To accept a job there is to step back in time by two decades or more — as the influx of women (the so-called ‘Blair babes’) found in 1997. Barbara Follett, who won Stevenage for Labour that year, recalls that some Tory men would stick their hands out so the female MPs would sit down on them. Nicholas Soames, she says, was the worst offender.
When David Cameron made his infamous ‘Calm down, dear’ comment to Nadine Dorries, it was perhaps a slip of the tongue. But there was no mistaking the nature of the guffaws that followed. The broadcaster and former political editor Julia Hartley-Brewer told me that, some years ago, she had her leg groped under the dinner table by a senior Tory but threatened to ‘punch him in the face’ if he did not stop. For some women, as well as some men, these are the terms of trade. But for other women, less likely to throw a punch, the behaviour is deeply discomfiting.
Lord Rennard was, until fairly recently, held with much reverence by the Lib Dems. He was the great strategist, the local election mastermind — and was regarded by many, himself included, as a superstar. Vera Baird QC, the Labour Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria, says such an aura is inherently dangerous. ‘If the man is a good campaigner, a popular local candidate or otherwise politically valuable, that is treated as more important. At best the hierarchies will keep him away from her and tell him to behave. At worst they will try to persuade her that it does not matter, the clear message to her being that she is not as important as he. These things will carry on happening, especially if the message coming from the top is that those responsible are likely to get away with it.’
Even now, prominent Liberal Democrats ask what the matter is with a bit of slap and tickle. Jasper Gerard, a Lib Dem candidate and biographer of Nick Clegg, has wondered aloud why there is such fuss over Lord Rennard ‘only touching a woman’s knee’ — it was, he said, ‘hardly Jimmy Savile’. It’s unclear if this is the test that the Lib Dems apply to complaints from women. The Hancock case has highlighted that there appears to be no proper test — and no regulatory framework to deal with complaints about the personal conduct of MPs towards their constituents. And that is the real scandal. The Westminster rules conspire against anyone trying to report abuse, whether they are researchers or constituents. The only course of action open to Annie, having been knocked back by everyone from the CPS to Portsmouth City Council, is to initiate civil proceedings against Hancock. And even now, with allegations of sexual assault, harassment and misfeasance in public office, she is being ignored.
Ellie Cumbo was the day-to-day organiser of the Lib Dem Campaign for Gender Balance in 2006–2007 and recalls hearing about the allegations against Rennard at the time. ‘Women are so under-represented in the powerful positions in a society in which sexual objectification is still a reality for most young women,’ she says. The distrust of equality measures, she believes, means that ‘a reverse sexism informs much of present-day liberal thought. You have a virtual blueprint for a culture of impunity.’
For Westminster’s 146 female MPs, the recent revelations can only bode well for the future — this scandal might shake parliament out of its complacency, and encourage MPs to better manage their libidos. But for the Lib Dems, this will be toxic. Nick Clegg’s party poses as the champion of equality, and the protector of the vulnerable. Annie has known for some time that the reality is rather different. The rest of the country is only now finding out.