‘Sleaze must be shown no mercy to win back trust’

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DAY after day, the litany of accusations lengthens, and with each shocking allegation a little more of the credibility of politics is chipped away.

The Yorkshire Post says: Harassment claims scandal and why society’s attitudes must change

A Government already tottering appears to be staggering ever closer to collapse as accusations of sexual sleaze – however vehemently denied – ensnare senior figures like Sir Michael Fallon and Damian Green.

In their wake at the weekend came lesser-known names like Dan Poulter, Chris Pincher and Charlie Elphicke, amid reports of the Conservatives bracing themselves for possible by-elections.

Labour is no less mired in the scandal, with Kelvin Hopkins suspended and, separately, a shocking allegation by a young activist that she was raped and told by a party official not to report it to the police.

But even though the flood of allegations is in full spate, this is still a scandal in its early stages.

By the time the full extent of the sleaze is exposed, it will dwarf the impact of the furore over MPs’ expenses, and raise questions in the minds of the electorate to which there are no easy answers.

Just who can we trust to run the country? And what is being done to ensure that those who are put forward for election are fit for office, not only intellectually, but in terms of their character?

This isn’t about party politics, because the accusations bedevil both Conservatives and Labour. It’s about trust, honesty and the straightforward distinction between right and wrong.

MPs’ preaching about values and principles from a party conference podium or an election broadcast becomes not only meaningless, but despicably cynical if, later on, after a few heavily-subsidised drinks in a Commons bar, the same individual is trying to coerce a terrified researcher young enough to be their daughter into sex.

This is the filthiest of stables to be cleared out. Careers will be trashed and the Government might fall if resignations destroy its slender majority. There is also the possibility of criminal investigations into the most serious allegations.

Whatever direction the scandal takes, one thing should be uppermost in the minds of both major parties – this is about much more than sexual harassment. It is now about rebuilding trust in politics.

The millions who turn up to work every day and treat their colleagues, whether male or female, with respect and decency, not lechery and predatory sexual advances, have the absolute right to demand the same standard of behaviour from politicians.

Yesterday evening’s meeting between leaders of all the political parties at Westminster to map out a framework for victims of sexual harassment to report abuse underlined that this is an infection affecting the entire body politic.

But the worst crisis engulfs the Conservatives, because they hold power and have lost a Cabinet Minister.

There is about the party a sense of déjà vu, the current scandals recalling the dying days of John Major’s government, when mired in scandal and bereft of ideas, it staggered towards a crushing electoral defeat.

This time the sleaze is sexual, not financial, but the result is the same end-of-days air, of a generation of senior Tories played out and condemned by their behaviour and attitudes to be anathema to voters, especially the young.

Possibly unconsciously, Fallon, who is 65, betrayed this when resigning last week, saying “what might have been acceptable 10 or 15 years ago is clearly not acceptable now”.

Really, Sir Michael? So sexual harassment was okay in 2007 or 2002 in your view, was it? This isn’t a question of changing times, but about behaviour that has always been unacceptable.

For the Tories, once the full details of harassment are revealed there will be only one option – a clear-out of the old guard and a new start with a younger generation, just as the party did in 2005 when it elected a fresh-faced David Cameron its leader.

Yet Labour has no grounds to crow at Tory discomfort. The allegation of rape within its ranks is horrifying, but there is also a litany of other allegations of sleazy behaviour that mirrors exactly the charge sheet against the Tories.

And of course, entirely separate from the sleaze allegations of the past week, Labour already has the embarrassment of Sheffield Hallam MP Jared O’Mara, suspended from the party and under investigation over comments unworthy of any MP.

The young, idealistic voters who gave Labour such a boost at the General Election will be as dismayed at the behaviour in some sections of the party as older Conservative supporters are at discovering men they believed to be decent and honourable MPs are contemptible lechers.

If political parties are to command the confidence of voters, they must now show decisively that they share their abhorrence at sexual harassment, and stop at nothing to stamp it out, whatever the electoral consequences.

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