Sunak urged to send ‘strong signal’ to support efforts to clean up Westminster

The culture in the Houses of Parliament is in the spotlight again (Dominic Lipinski/PA)
The culture in the Houses of Parliament is in the spotlight again (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Rishi Sunak should send a signal that he backs tougher measures to crack down on Westminster sleaze, a senior Tory MP said.

Women and Equalities Committee chairwoman Caroline Nokes said the Prime Minister should publicly back a report recommending that former deputy chief whip Chris Pincher should be handed a potentially by-election triggering eight-week suspension for drunkenly groping two men.

She said that doing so would give Chief Whip Simon Hart the licence to work across the House to draw up a tougher, clearer code of conduct to tackle rogue MPs.

Caroline Nokes criticised the ‘laddish’ culture in Westminster (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Conservative MP Ms Nokes said the situation in Westminster was “horrific” and she had been subjected to around 50 incidents of inappropriate behaviour during her 13 years in the Commons.

She told BBC’s Newsnight: “I can think of an incident where a member of the House of Lords, in a restaurant, said hello to me, walked past, turned around, came back and stroked my bare arm in the presence of a journalist.

“I can think of other incidents where a Labour MP patted me on the backside and told me that I’ve done well to lose weight. Now he in that instance, looked about as shocked as I did, and clearly instantly regretted what he’d done.

“But other incidents, where colleagues have put their hands on my thigh and told me at great length, how their wives don’t understand them. It’s just horrific.”

She said there were people she would not get in a lift with and female MPs “will provide information to each other on who to trust, who not to trust, who we think is a little bit creepy”.

Despite the increasing number of women in the Commons, there was still a “really laddish culture where the ‘banter’ defence is used – ‘oh well, she just can’t take a bit of banter’”.

“It’s just not acceptable in the 21st century workplace.”

On Thursday, the Commons Standards Committee published a report recommending a lengthy suspension for Tamworth MP Mr Pincher over his conduct.

Boris Johnson’s handling of the row over his former chief whip was the final nail in the coffin of his premiership, triggering his resignation a year ago after an exodus of ministers from his administration.

The committee said that Mr Pincher’s conduct at the exclusive Carlton Club in London was “profoundly damaging” and “especially grave” because it amounted to an abuse of power.

His actions were described as “unwanted, inappropriate and upsetting”, in what amounted to an “egregious case of sexual misconduct”.

Mr Sunak’s official spokesman said it was a matter for Mr Pincher whether to resign as an MP.

The Prime Minister was absent for votes on other disciplinary matters, including the report on whether Mr Johnson lied to Parliament, but Ms Nokes said he should show support for the Standards Committee’s findings in the Pincher case.

She said she hoped a vote would not be needed, with MPs endorsing the report without dissent, but Mr Sunak “has a role to play in accepting the recommendations”.

Pushed on whether Mr Sunak should be in the Commons when Mr Pincher’s case is considered, she said: “I think the Prime Minister could do that for us.

“I think that would be a really strong signal that he’s not going to tolerate it, and that would send a message to the chief (whip): get this sorted.”

She said the code of conduct should be explicit enough to spell out that watching pornography in the Commons or touching colleagues is unacceptable, urging the chief whips of all parties to work on new rules.

“There can’t be any grey areas, and it has to apply equally to members of the House of Lords,” she said.

Mr Pincher’s case, which took a year to get to a report, has highlighted some of the issues with the disciplinary processes in Parliament.

He had argued that because he was at the Carlton Club in a personal capacity, he could not have broken the MPs’ code of conduct.

Mr Pincher apologised for his conduct but he was found to have damaged the reputation of the Commons.

It is the latest damaging revelation about the culture in Westminster.

Earlier this week, five current and one former parliamentary staff members told Newsnight that inappropriate flirting and touching is prevalent, with older MPs and staffers sometimes targeting younger women.

Ellie Varley, a parliamentary aide to Tory MP Dehenna Davison, took the rare step of going on the record to say she is “frankly just angry” with the state of affairs as she recounted being repeatedly asked to sit on an MP’s knee.