The Guardian view on abusive MPs: beware the arrogance of power

There are two traditional means by which MPs are held responsible for their actions. They face the judgment of voters in elections, and they are subject to discipline by party whips. Those are mostly political evaluations, and there is still a large realm where MPs are their own bosses, unchecked in the way that they use their power – able too often to abuse it.

Whether parliament contains a disproportionate number of bullies and sexual predators relative to other workplaces is hard to measure. Not all allegations end up being substantiated, but the known cases already give cause for national shame.

Last month, Imran Ahmad Khan, a Conservative MP, resigned after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy. David Warburton, MP for Somerton and Frome, has been suspended from the Tory party pending an inquiry by parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) into an accusation of sexual harassment. He denies the allegations.

The ICGS was established in 2018, in response to the flood of stories that emerged when the #MeToo movement reached Westminster. According to one recent report, the scheme is currently considering around 70 complaints relating to 56 MPs, including cabinet and shadow cabinet ministers. This week, a Conservative MP was arrested by police on suspicion of rape and sexual assault. In December 2021, Andrew Griffiths, a former Tory minister, was found by a family court to have raped and physically abused his wife. In 2020, the former Tory MP Charlie Elphicke was jailed for two years after being found guilty of sexual assault. Both men were protected by colleagues when allegations were first made against them.

A common thread in many cases is the sense of powerlessness and isolation induced in the victim by a politician who uses patronage and the aura of authority bestowed by his office to exert control. That imbalance makes it easier for the abuser to evade exposure, using his privileged position to discredit accusers and intimidate them into silence. It is a common template for abuse. It happens often in opaque and informal hierarchies, such as political parties, where a young woman can be made to feel that her place depends on tolerating the intolerable, and that she will not be believed if she dares to speak out. In whips’ offices, ideology and expediency too often trump decency and duty of care.

None of this is new, nor is it exclusive to one end of the political spectrum. But it is a rot that spreads fastest when power is wielded with impunity, which is more often the condition in parties after long stints in office. That is the state of the current Conservative government.

Westminster culture is changing. The era when MPs could behave as unchecked petty tyrants in their own personal fiefdoms is coming to an end. Victims of abuse and harassment are finding their voice. But the pace of change is too slow and, surveying the record, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the present government, stale and arrogant in its long incumbency, has been in power too long to be a credible source of renewal.

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