Michael Fallon, Mark Garnier, Stephen Crabb, Damian Green and Charlie Elphicke
From L-R: Michael Fallon; Mark Garnier; Stephen Crabb; Damian Green; Charlie Elphicke (Photos: Getty, Rex)

POLITICS

Can Theresa May clean up British politics and live to tell the tale?

Or is only our second female prime minister going to be brought down by male MPs behaving sleazily? Gaby Hinsliff on a watershed moment for Westminster

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By Gaby Hinsliff on

To clean up Westminster properly would take pretty big shovels.

So said the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, when the sexual-harassment scandal first reached parliament and now it’s clear what she meant.

So far, 12 Conservative and Labour MPs stand accused of acts ranging from mildly creepy to potentially criminal, while a further three women – one each on the Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat side – have described being raped by unnamed party members who are not MPs. Two members of government have resigned (the whip Chris Pincher quit after a former male staffer accused him of making a pass clad only in a bathrobe). They’re all staying in parliament for now, but parties are braced for by-elections if something worse emerges – and it would only take a handful of Tory losses for Theresa May's government to collapse. It's no longer mad to wonder if this is actually the end game.

And that means we've reached the decisive moment – one where parliament has to choose between cleaning out its stables in public or trying to shut the door on the mess. And parliament is dividing into two pretty clear camps.

In the latter camp are MPs telling Theresa May to “get a grip” – sack the worst offenders and then move on pronto – who want this sprawling scandal contained now. Many fear her government won't survive more scalps or can't afford the distraction from Brexit.

But a potentially critical mass of MPs, not all of them Labour, are uncomfortable about sweeping this mess under the carpet. To them, this feels like the expenses scandal, where getting everything out in the open was messy and painful but necessary to restoring public trust. They think the scandal needs to be allowed to burn through, like a forest fire that ultimately leaves the forest a healthier place.

The irony of a female prime minister being brought down by men behaving sleazily is obvious, especially when the party nipping at her heels has its own glaring issues

Davidson seems to be edging towards this camp, having presumably been as shocked as the rest of us to see Stephen Crabb – the man she backed during the last leadership campaign – under investigation for sending “outrageous” text messages to a 19-year-old seeking work in his office. The home secretary, Amber Rudd, has also suggested a clear-out is coming, adding, “I think Westminster, including the government, will be better for it.” The question of how far Theresa May wants to take this, however, is awkwardly tied up with how long she wants to remain in power, and not just because every case she refers for investigation builds resentment among older, crustier Tories.

The irony of a female prime minister being brought down by men behaving sleazily is obvious, especially when the party nipping at her heels has its own glaring issues. Many Labour women were aghast at the sight of Jeremy Corbyn defending his decision to promote Kelvin Hopkins into his shadow cabinet, even though Hopkins had been formally reprimanded for allegedly rubbing himself up against a young female activist and sending texts.

But the Tories would only have to lose seven seats in by-elections for May to lose her majority, and panicky demands for her resignation would kick in long before that magic number was reached. Even one by-election in a reasonably safe Tory seat would leave Davidson with a seriously big decision: if she’s the potential party leader some think she could be, wouldn't that be her cue to leave Scotland and stand for Westminster, where she could be swiftly groomed for the top job? The stakes couldn't be higher.  

So, what happens depends partly on the stamina of the many decent MPs on all sides – from Labour’s Jess Phillips, Stella Creasy, Sarah Champion and John Mann to the Tories’ Rudd, Anna Soubry and Andrew Bridgen – doing their bit to expose wrongdoing and partly on the attention span of voters. It sounds ridiculous to suggest anyone would get bored of something this shocking, but most of us lost count of Harvey Weinstein’s victims after a while and a similar numbness could conceivably set in at Westminster as life (and the news cycle) moves on.

But, mostly, it depends on how May wants to use what are almost certainly her last months in office. Weak as she is, an outgoing prime minister who won’t fight another election and doesn’t care about being liked has a strange freedom to act in some ways. If she's looking for a legacy, an act of service that sums up what she has stood for in public life, then clearing out these seediest of stables might be it. But she's going to need quite some shovel.

@gabyhinsliff

From L-R: Michael Fallon; Mark Garnier; Stephen Crabb; Damian Green; Charlie Elphicke (Photos: Getty, Rex)
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Politics
Westminster
sexual harassment

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