Reflecting on allegations towards 36 Conservative MPs, Kate Bradley argues that we should look past the big scandals and dodgy politics of the list itself – it’s the violence and the cover-ups which should concern us most.
Reports of inappropriate sexual behaviour in the Conservative Party have dominated headlines for the past few days, the latest in a series of high-profile news stories about sexual violence and coercion by the powerful. Last week, it was Harvey Weinstein in the spotlight; now it is Michael Fallon, who has quit his job as Defence Secretary, ostensibly over allegations that he is ‘a drunk’ and has ‘odd sexual penchants’. What this means we don’t yet know, but it was clearly enough for Fallon to decide to jump before he was pushed. We also don’t know yet why he resigned – and whether it was through a fear of being revealed to have done much worse. Either way, sadly Fallon’s case has generated quite a bit of sympathetic coverage, masking the horror of the rest of the list on which the details of ‘sexual impropriety’ were leaked.
Though the most recent official line appears to be that the circulated list is made up of fabrications and rumours, The Sun have seen fit to publish a redacted version, claiming that it was ‘drawn up by staff who work with Conservative MPs’. Whilst it would be wise not to assume the total veracity of the list, Fallon’s resignation seems to lend some credibility to the accusations.
If you look past the highest profile names – the media’s opportunistic approach to this ‘dirty dossier’ – and look at the list itself, it shows that dozens of men and some women in incredibly powerful positions in government have been notably ‘inappropriate’ with their colleagues and employees. Moreover, it shows that sexually predatory behaviour in the party has been known about and tolerated, probably for a long time. Nothing has been done to remove these people from their positions of power. Lisa Nandy even went as far as to suggest that allegations were being used by whips to demand loyalty from MPs – effectively used as blackmail, a form of internal cover-up.
It isn’t the first time that allegations of cover-ups have been made – in 2014, former Tory whip Tim Fortescue said that in Edward Heath’s government whips kept a ‘dirt book’ on MPs which could either be used to ‘get a chap out of trouble’ for sex crimes as extreme as child abuse, or keep them in line through blackmail. This cooption of sexual abuse into the repertoire of whips’ tools should be front and centre of this story, since it highlights the contempt with which Tory whips treat allegations of sexual violence. Lisa Nandy has personally accused Theresa May of ignoring these allegations in the tradition of many Prime Ministers before her, including Margaret Thatcher (discussed at length in Dawn Foster’s Lean Out). In one sense, of course PMs ignore the tools used by their whips to keep discipline: the manipulation of these ‘dirty secrets’, conceptualised as fair game in internal power games, is part of the Tory Party’s culture and the way they maintain control.
As for the allegations themselves, four of the people on the list are described as ‘handsy’, Guy Opperman so ‘handsy’ that he’s gained a (dismissive) nickname for it – ‘Guy Copperfeel’. What a terrible word ‘handsy’ is! What it really means is much worse than it sounds: these are people who are known to touch, grope, assault others; people women would be nervous to be left alone with; people who feel so entitled to others’ bodies that they will handle them without permission, as if objects. Other accusations include that Dan Poulter pressured someone to get an abortion and Andrew Mitchell paid someone to ‘keep quiet’ about his ‘inappropriate’ behaviour – both allegations that merit serious investigation.
The leaked list of Tory Party MPs and staffers’ actions is a mess of homophobia and reactionary politics, as you might expect from a Tory internal document. Matters of personal import only – kinks, fetishes, sexuality – are grouped in with non-consensual and coercive sexual relationships as if they are all forms of comparable ‘deviance’. ‘Odd’ sexual preferences are placed alongside sexual harassment and forced abortion as if they are equal, and the whole thing is couched in trivialising language, including repeated use of the word ‘handsy’ – otherwise known as groping, sexual assault. Some of these actions are crimes, others improprieties, but some are simply private preferences practiced by consenting adults – perhaps only interesting in that they highlight the Conservatives’ hypocrisy in legislating against alternative sexual tastes in porn. It could be that the compilers of the list see all these acts as equal, but more likely, they are only interested in the harm a ‘dirty’ secret could do for an MP’s PR.
We shouldn’t let the mixed-up politics of the list itself distract us from the fact that behind the glibly-worded summaries could be dozens of acts of violence and harm and dozens of instances of covering them up. Rather than getting drawn into endless ruminations on the biggest scandals – Boris Johnson, for instance – it’s the harmful acts and the institutional cover-ups that opponents of sexual violence should focus on as the facts emerge.