The hidden side of Pestminster

EuroActiv Politico News

LONDON — “I just had to shrug it off, essentially, and know that I would not speak to that MP again.” 

George, a Conservative Party activist in his 20s, is recalling an encounter last year with a prominent Tory MP who had suggested meeting for a drink — and then “went on to make intimations of potential sexual attraction between us.” 

While the encounter was not aggressive, George — not his real name — was left feeling “uncomfortable,” and believes that were he to positively interact with the MP again it would be interpreted as a green light for a sexual relationship. 

His experience is part of a widely known but seldom discussed dynamic at Westminster, in which a small number of male gay MPs, peers and senior parliamentary managers wield an uncomfortable degree of power over younger male employees, often gay themselves. 

The trend is rarely talked about, in part because to even raise such a sensitive issue risks playing into an age-old — and grossly offensive — homophobic stereotype that equates homosexuality with predatory behavior. 

But the recent string of sexual misconduct allegations against MPs — several, such as those made against former deputy chief whip Chris Pincher last week, involving claims of sexual assault by men against men — have confirmed what some parliamentary staffers have long warned: that young women aren’t the only group in Westminster at risk of sexual harassment.

The dynamic

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) representation in the U.K. Parliament has improved significantly over the past two decades. 

A University of Carolina study in 2015 found there were more openly gay MPs in Britain than anywhere else in the world. Since then the number of LGBT politicians in the Commons has only increased, a fact widely celebrated by those working there. PinkNews put the number at 56 — out of 650 MPs — in 2020. 

There is no question that the working practices of the vast majority of these MPs are wholly unremarkable, most acting with kindness and decency towards their employees.

But it is also true that a “whisper network” of private warnings exists in parallel among male parliamentary staff — just as it does among women — about certain MPs to stay away from in taxis, elevators and elsewhere.

Those in the upper echelons of power are aware of the issue. A Cabinet minister said: “There’s a real problem in Westminster in general — not just in the Conservative Party — around the gay scene. It’s a lot of alcohol and young gay researchers either flirting with or being subject to predatory advances by senior gay men.”

It is well known within staff circles that sexuality can be a decisive factor in the hiring choices of a particular handful of gay MPs, who tend to employ exclusively young gay men. 

A former employee of the disgraced ex-MP Imran Ahmad Khan said there was a high turnover of young men in his office, often still in their teens or just graduated from university. One current MP has employed 18 young men for short stints in his office since 2017, according to staff registers, while at least two other MPs are known for similar track records.

This doesn’t break any rules, but multiple current and former staffers say such practices can contribute to an unhealthy working environment. 

“If you have someone that maybe takes your fancy because they look good, there’s no procedure to [ensure] properly structured interviews and proper recruitment processes,” says one gay male activist who previously worked for an MP. 

He described a “gay Tory clique” in which younger aides’ lives revolve almost entirely around gay MPs and other staffers working in similar offices. 

“All staffers have to follow their MPs around, but this is like they are living and breathing their lives,” he said. “And they are just counting down to Thursdays when everyone gets pissed and goes to ‘Players’” — a reference to a popular late-night drinking den close to Westminster.

Drinking heavily is a “prerequisite” to being part of this scene, said George, the first activist quoted above.

Chief Whip Chris Heaton-Harris (L) and disgraced Former Deputy Chief Whip Chris Pincher (R). Pincher faces multiple sexual misconduct allegations | Rob Pinney/Getty Images

As described by these former staffers, such relationships can be mutually beneficial: the MP enjoys having a young “entourage,” while the employees are gaining access to exclusive spaces and making useful contacts. 

But, as they point out, the dynamic builds a deeper layer of loyalty which can become problematic if the employee feels they can’t say no to certain requests or expectations — whether it’s spending all hours at work, being subjected to inappropriate behavior, or turning a blind eye when it happens to others. 

The Cabinet minister quoted earlier said: “It becomes self-fulfilling. It attracts young gay men to be spads [special advisers] who then aspire to become members of parliament and then you’ve baked this [behavior] into the Westminster bubble for the next 10 years.”

Dark side of Westminster

Within the small subdivision of MPs’ and peers’ offices where such scenarios play out, most members of staff talk of an “unhealthy” or “uncomfortable” atmosphere rather than anything dangerous or illegal. 

But a much smaller number of cases exist where MPs stand directly accused — though not publicly — of sexual misconduct. 

One parliamentary worker says they witnessed a young, male aide being pushed against a wall and his groin fondled by a long-serving MP. The aide resigned soon afterwards, choosing to quit politics rather than make a complaint. 

A former MP related how a serving MP from a different party had tried to touch him inappropriately in a taxi, when drunk. The ex-MP did not feel the incident worthy of a formal complaint, but admitted he worried how a more junior colleague might cope in the same situation. 

And a former parliamentary official said another Tory MP was “incredibly inappropriate” towards a colleague, “touching him and outrageously drunk.” A member of House staff witnessed the incident and asked if he wanted to file a complaint, but the official decided that to do so would be “career suicide.” 

Changing times

Older gay politicians attest that, because homosexuality was once taboo, male victims of assault would in the past have been likely to keep quiet. 

There are signs this is changing. Not only are gay victims making formal complaints, as in the case of Rob Roberts, who was permanently suspended from the Conservative Party after making repeated and unwanted sexual advances toward a male former member of staff in 2021.

Victims are receiving more support from across the parliamentary community, and just as importantly, they are getting organized. 

The recently-formed Conservative Staffers for Change wrote to Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party Headquarters in May to urge them to stop treating claims of sexual abuse and harassment as “mere gossip.” 

While the letter was not only addressing abusive behavior toward men, the group did confirm that Pincher had been part of the reason they wrote the letter, based on the testimony of men who had raised concerns about his alleged conduct.

A special committee, known as a Speaker’s Conference, has now been launched to review employment practices in parliament, although MPs are privately skeptical their colleagues would agree to give up the control they current exercise over their offices. 

A genuine problem, according to one parliamentary official with knowledge of the process, is finding MPs to sit on the committee who are utterly free from any question of bad behavior towards staff.

One Conservative activist, who spent weeks trying to get the party to take the accusations against Rob Roberts seriously, was in despair at the allegations which have come to light about Pincher. 

“What a joke of a government,” he said via text message. “Have they learned nothing? It’s as if they don’t really care.”

Whether it’s men or women on the receiving end, it’s a concern raised by too many parliamentary staffers still waiting for a long-promised “zero tolerance” approach to sexual harassment.