Tory MPs’ staff tell Boris Johnson abuse is treated as ‘mere gossip’ in parliament

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Brian Harris/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Brian Harris/Alamy

Serious sexual abuse, harassment and bullying accusations against MPs are treated as “mere gossip”, dozens of Conservative staffers have said, as they urged Boris Johnson and party headquarters to do more to tackle the problem.

The group of staff working for Tory MPs said that “behaviour committed by a few individuals but tolerated by others has stained the reputation” of parliament.

Their intervention follows a string of incidents – including a Tory MP being arrested on suspicion of rape, a second being jailed for sexually assaulting a child and another being investigated over sexual harassment claims.

In a letter seen by the Guardian, the staffers warned: “A culture of gossip and rumour has enabled the toleration and acceptance of abuse for too long. This has to change.”

They said that “persistent stories of abuse and denigration of standards in parliament” had left them “ashamed” and that improvements to the system of reporting harassment were not enough.

“Making abuse easier to report does nothing to change the root cause: a culture of indifference and fear,” they wrote.

“In any other workplace, things would never have been allowed to get this bad. It is shocking that those most involved in the governance of our country have overseen such a denigration of standards.

“We understand that the power to make change often lies outside of parliament, with the government and political parties themselves.

“However, all it takes for evil to prosper is for good people to stand by and do nothing. Change must come from the top – MPs must call out their colleagues’ behaviour and end this constant cycle of scandal that tarnishes all of us.”

The letter, organised by two staffers and sent to the prime minister, the Conservative party chair Oliver Dowden, and the Commons Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, added that “sexual abuse, harassment and bullying have started to become synonymous with politics” and “major allegations of illegal behaviour are treated as mere gossip”.

The group called on the party to “uphold the commonsense decency of the British people and stand up to behaviour that is so clearly wrong” and called for changes.

They urged Conservative central headquarters (CCHQ) to incorporate how potential candidates say they would treat staff and run their office professionally into the selection process.

And the whips’ office was asked that those who are placed under investigation should have the whip suspended.

The whips’ office – which is in charge of party discipline – refused to withdraw the whip from the MP arrested on suspicion of rape earlier this month, and another MP arrested for the same reason in 2020.

Several sources suggested figures in the whips’ office and party headquarters had been exerting pressure on people asked to sign the letter and urging them not to though this was disputed.

One who signed the letter told the Guardian: “Being an MP should be the greatest honour of your life. It’s not an excuse to use your power and privilege to try to turn the mother of parliaments into a knocking shop.”

Other staffers dismissed the letter, saying it was too scornful of the government and so was unlikely to lead to the desired changes.

The organisers are understood to have been granted a meeting with the chief whip on Thursday.

A Conservative party spokesperson said they took all complaints seriously and that staff could “raise complaints or speak to our HR team at any point if they want advice”. They added that all candidates must subscribe to the party’s code of conduct, constitution and equal opportunities policy.

A government spokesperson said there was “absolutely no place for bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct in parliament” and that “we take all claims of this nature incredibly seriously and would encourage anyone with allegations to come forward to the relevant authorities”.

They added: “Tackling these issues is rightly a matter for parliament and the prime minister is fully committed to working with the parliamentary authorities, Speaker’s office, and on a cross-party basis, to improve the culture in parliament.”