“Pincher by name, pincher by nature.”
If Boris Johnson really did use those sniggering words of the man he then made deputy chief whip regardless, then they must surely now return to haunt him. For those words do something no previous Westminster scandal has quite done, and strip away some of the excuses surrounding sexual harassment and bad behaviour on the scale now emerging in politics.
Because it’s not just about the booze, or the late nights, or some mythical entitled culture embedded in Westminster’s ancient buildings and rituals. Chris Pincher was stone cold sober and in a meeting to discuss hospice fundraising when – according to an NHS worker named Mark Dabbs, the seventh man so far to level accusations against him – he asked some inappropriately personal questions and allegedly groped Dabbs.
It’s not even just about misogyny either, with the men now coming forward to accuse Pincher – who has firmly denied a string of allegations against him – illuminating a form of harassment all too often brushed under the carpet, perhaps in part because society still isn’t comfortable acknowledging male vulnerability or victimhood.
Strip away the cultural excuses, and what remains is the fact that abuses of power happen most readily wherever they’re allowed to happen, either because those at the top don’t take them seriously enough or because the alleged abuser is simply too important to them. This scandal at the heart of the whips’ office leaves many Tory MPs questioning whether their own leader actually gives a damn about them, a feeling with which much of the country will already be familiar.
Downing Street says the prime minister wasn’t aware of “specific” allegations against Pincher, a claim likely to be sorely tested in the coming days. But even setting all other rumours aside, anyone capable of reading a newspaper knew Pincher had resigned from the whips’ office in 2017 following allegations of making a pass at a young activist. Although an internal party investigation in 2018 cleared his path back to office, the risks of putting someone with that history into a job wielding power over potentially vulnerable MPs – including those suffering personal problems, or reporting sexual misconduct by colleagues – should have been visible from space.
Equally disturbing, meanwhile, was the message his appointment sent to other MPs about what would and wouldn’t be considered career-ending behaviour – at least if you were loyal, and as fervently willing as Pincher to help keep the leader in office. The anger visibly bubbling up in Tory ranks isn’t just because once again they’re mired in avoidable scandal, but because they’re increasingly disinclined to cover up for a man who makes them feel like collateral damage to his own ambitions.
Boris Johnson’s modus operandi has always required an army of people clearing up behind him. He needs wives prepared to forgive his infidelities, deputies willing to do the work that bores him, spin doctors capable of reconciling sweeping public statements with known facts, and allies willing publicly to defend some exceedingly sticky wickets. When he was foreign secretary, diplomats nicknamed his junior minister Alan Duncan the “pooper scooper”, forever cleaning up his messes. Yet suddenly, some of Big Dog’s allies seem to be downing their scoops.
The backlash against Downing Street’s protestations of innocence over Pincher, with detailed allegations of concerns being raised with the whips’ office over the past five years, suggests Tory MPs are no longer willing to keep quiet. Ministers too are visibly tired of being sent out to defend bad decisions, such as the initial refusal to remove the whip from Pincher, only for No 10 to U-turn and leave them looking ridiculous. First the Daily Telegraph and now the unswervingly loyal Daily Mail are turning hostile. All these are signs of a Conservative establishment nearing the end of its tether, and this week’s elections to the 1922 Committee – the body with the power to change the rules and trigger another leadership contest – may provide another.
Yet if the end of the Johnson era is now in sight, the Conservative party should not expect to find much closure in it. For everything that can be said of Boris Johnson’s appointment of Chris Pincher – that he knew enough to guess this would become a political problem, that he should have thought about the example it set, that political expediency shouldn’t trump the wider interest – is uncannily also true of the Conservative party’s appointment three years ago of one Boris Johnson. They knew what he was, hired him anyway, and have yet to take responsibility for the consequences. How ironic, if this is what it takes for the penny to start dropping.