No 10 has denied that Boris Johnson knew about any specific sexual misconduct claims against Chris Pincher before making him deputy chief whip, as the prime minister faces growing pressure to withdraw the whip from his ally for allegedly drunkenly groping two men.
Johnson’s deputy official spokesperson said the prime minister was not aware of any allegations against Pincher prior to promoting him in February, despite multiple sources saying No 10 was told of allegations of sexual misconduct before this point.
No 10 admitted that the Cabinet Office’s propriety and ethics team examined Pincher’s suitability but said it could not block any appointment based on “unsubstantiated rumour”.
Pincher had previously resigned over claims he made unwanted passes at a fellow Conservative, who described him as a “poundshop Harvey Weinstein”. He was cleared of wrongdoing in an official investigation.
The Pincher affair is the latest in a long line of sexual misconduct claims against Tory MPs, with Johnson under increasing pressure to clear up the culture in his party.
However, No 10 refused to acknowledge allegations that Pincher drunkenly assaulted two men at the Carlton Club in Piccadilly, central London, saying only that Johnson accepted the MP’s resignation for embarrassing himself. The party has also declined to withdraw the whip from Pincher before a crunch vote of backbench MPs for appointments to the 1922 Committee, which will decide whether to change the rules to allow another confidence vote on the prime minister’s future.
But Conservative MPs said they were doubtful Johnson would be able to hold off from withdrawing the whip for long.
Karen Bradley and Caroline Nokes, two senior female Tory MPs and select committee chairs, wrote to Johnson on Friday urging him to bring in “zero tolerance” for cases of sexual misconduct, adding that the whip should be withdrawn while thorough investigations are carried out in each and every case. Bradley and Nokes also called for a code of conduct for Conservative members.
At present, any complaints about sexual misconduct are investigated by parliament’s independent complaints and grievance service, which only accepts cases brought by victims. The other route is through the police, if there is a suspicion of a crime. However, there is no clear path for an investigation of non-criminal conduct where victims do not bring forward the complaint.
Labour’s Yvette Cooper said that removing the whip from Pincher needed to be the “first step that takes place”, but did not call for him to resign as an MP.
Cooper told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We need to know the full truth about what has happened and what the allegations are. But I think that’s [removing the whip] the first step that needs to take place. And I think the idea that the Conservatives can try and simply dismiss this is just unacceptable.
“They have to show they take this kind of thing more seriously. Time and again Boris Johnson just doesn’t. That is not good enough. This is about standards in public life.”
Simon Hart, the secretary of state for Wales, said his first reaction to the news of the allegations was one of “sadness and frustration” and “here we are again”. He said it was up to the chief whip to make the decision to remove the whip from Pincher, meaning he would no longer be a sitting Conservative MP.
“This makes me very sad. It makes me sad for everybody who’s been involved in these things,” Hart said. “It’s clearly something which has gone terribly wrong. There is a process; I think it’s important that the process is followed.
“I think it is entirely right that the chief whip and others take a view today about what is the appropriate course of action. Of course, if there are those who are victims of this, or who wish to raise a complaint, they can do so.”
When pushed on whether he thought Pincher should have the whip removed, Hart said: “It is not my decision. I know what I’d like to see happen. You can probably tell what that is just from the way I am trying to avoid answering your question.”
He added: “Let’s let today play out, let the chief whip do his duty today, and then I think we might be having a very different conversation as the day goes on.”
Hart told the Today programme: “It is absolutely beholden on us to make sure that we do these things properly from the point of view of the victims.”
However, he could not confirm if there would be a formal investigation into the allegations.
Asked whether he hoped the issue would get swept under the rug, Hart told Sky: “Absolutely not. This is not the first time. I fear it possibly won’t be the last. This happens in workplaces from time to time.”
The MP for Tamworth had previously stood down from the whips’ office in 2017 after allegations he made an unwanted pass at the former Olympic rower and Conservative activist Alex Story.