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How allegations against Pincher reflect a cultural crisis at the heart of government

Who is Chris Pincher?

Chris Pincher was a prominent member of Government who resigned from his position as Deputy Whip last week following reports that he groped two men last Wednesday at London’s Carlton Club for Conservative Members.

In response to the allegations, Pincher stated that he is “truly sorry” for the “upset” he caused, that he drank “far too much”, and that he is seeking medical help. On Friday 1st July, Pincher was suspended from the Conservative Party, and is now sitting as an Independent. Since Sunday, Pincher has also faced six new claims of inappropriate behaviour stretching back several years, which he has denied.

History repeats itself

However, this is not the first time that Pincher has stepped back from the Whip’s Office. In 2017, he quit his post as a Conservative Whip following allegations that he made an inappropriate advance to Conservative candidate and former rower Alex Story, which he was later cleared of by the Conservative Party under Teresa May’s government. 

These allegations come after two by-elections were triggered when former Conservative MPs Neil Parish and Imran Ahmad Khan were forced to resign over watching pornography in the House of Commons and sexual assault of a minor respectively.

Number 10’s attempt to curb the scandal

Concerningly, it has been made clear that Johnson knew something of Pincher’s behaviour before the official allegations were made.

At the Downing Street lobby briefing today, Number 10 admitted that Boris Johnson was “aware of some” misconduct allegations against Pincher before he appointed him as deputy chief whip in the February reshuffle. However, Johnson’s spokesperson said that it was not appropriate to block Pincher’s appointment as Deputy Chief Whip based on “unsubstantiated allegations”.

The spokesperson further added that the allegations had either been “resolved” or “did not progress to a formal complaint” and that as Pincher was serving as Housing Minister at the time, no clear evidence was in place to stop him from serving as a member of the Government.

It was also reported that the Cabinet Office’s propriety and ethics team said there was no reason to block Pincher’s February appointment. This claim has been met with much scrutiny online with Labour Peer Jenny Chapman stating “I don’t think anybody in Westminster believes that Boris Johnson did not know about the allegations about Mr Pincher”.

Jenny Chapman Chris Pincher
Jenny Chapman

The Cabinet’s response

Even though Will Quince, the Minister for Children and Families, has vaguely, yet publicly spoken about the matter on the Today program, stating that he had received “categorical reassurance” from Number 10 that Johnson was not aware of any specific allegation, most Senior Cabinet ministers have not made a comment. However, on BBC Breakfast, Minister Quince was keen to highlight that he was booked four days ago in respect of his announcement on changes to early year’s education provision.

In a Daily Telegraph article, it is reported that one cabinet source informed the Telegraph that it was likely that junior ministers would be “wheeled out” on broadcast interviews as their more senior cabinet colleagues were likely to try to “pull rank” and refuse to discuss the matter in public.

This relative quiet may partly be explained by the backlash to Secretary of State for Work and Pension Theresa Coffey’s comment on BBC 1’s Sunday Morning show. When asked about the source of her previous comment made on Sky News that Johnson was had not been aware of any specific allegations against Pincher, Coffey explained that her statement was informed by “somebody “ in the Number 10 Press Office, as opposed to Johnson himself, raising important questions about the style and clarity of communication in the Cabinet.

Dominic Cumming’s tweets

If there has been relative silence on the part of Senior Ministers, Dominic Cummings, the Former Chief Adviser to Johnson, has been much more outspoken about the matter.

At 9:50 am today, Cummings posted on Twitter claiming that it is “normal” in reshuffle meetings to “go down a list like: Pervert, Under Investigation by NCA (he doesn’t know), Drunk, Sex Pest” etc, raising questions about why he did not criticise such an approach at the time.

At 1:23 pm, he also tweeted that if Johnson did not know about Pincher, “then why did he repeatedly refer to him laughing in No10 as ‘pincher by name, pincher by nature’ long before appointing him…?”

Final thought

Unfortunately, Pincher is not the only MP who is currently facing allegations of sexual misconduct. In fact, he is one of eleven.

The fact that sexual misconduct cases are clearly not isolated or unexpected among elected representatives in Westminster has led to a public backlash. While Deputy Leader of the Labour Party Angela Rayner has commented that “the Conservative Party is so mired in sleaze and scandal that it is totally unable to tackle the challenges facing the British people”, one could also question whether the systemic issue partly lies with the culture of Westminster culture at large.

In a Guardian article, Isabel Hardman who published the book “Why We Get the Wrong Politicians in 2018”, argued that politicians are coming to accept a new normal of abuse and a miserable life that leads many of their best to quit”.

The recent allegations made against Pincher and the Cabinet’s culture of silence and denial around them, is yet another example of why systemic cultural and structural change is needed in Westminster, from uprooting the drinking culture to ensuring that allegations are taken seriously and are simple to make to challenging the fact that Ministers struggle to say what they are really thinking to keep their jobs and toe the party line.

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