Drunken sleaze in Westminster must be stamped out - Andrew Vine

I FELT rather sorry for a group of Conservative activists canvassing outside my local shops at the weekend for Thursday’s council elections.

They were having an uphill struggle. One, whom I know reasonably well, grimaced when I asked how it was going. Issues such as potholes and fly-tipping, the nitty gritty of local concerns, were not on people’s minds when he tried to persuade them to elect Tory councillors.

Instead, voters were venting their frustration about lockdown parties in Downing Street and disgust at what appears to be a governing party mired in sleaze. Candidates for council seats argue in vain that they should be judged on their proposals to tackle local issues, and not bracketed with what many voters see as a disreputable bunch of national politicians.

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For the Conservatives in particular, public revulsion at sleaze is likely to cost them dear in terms of council seats lost later this week.

Picture: PA.

The resignation of Tiverton and Honiton MP Neil Parish after he admitted watching pornography on his phone in the Commons, to the entirely understandable disgust of female colleagues, represents more than just the humiliation of a man who has only himself to blame.

It reinforces the impression that law-makers who preach to the rest of us how to behave are hypocrites whose own behaviour and standards are at odds with those they are elected to represent. It is the grimmest of facts that here in Yorkshire we have the worst possible example of that, in the person of Wakefield MP Imran Ahmad Khan, currently awaiting sentence after being convicted of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy.

Let’s not forget that after Khan’s conviction, senior Tory MP Crispin Blunt described the jury’s verdict as a miscarriage of justice, a comment he withdrew after an outcry.

The spotlight may be on the Conservatives, but there is a wider perception of a cadre of MPs who believe normal standards of decent behaviour do not apply to them.

There are 56 MPs facing investigation by the Parliamentary watchdog over accusations of sexual misconduct, allegedly including three cabinet ministers and two Labour shadow cabinet members.

And, of course, we have a PM with the unenviable distinction of being the first to be found guilty of a criminal offence whilst in office, because he broke Covid lockdown rules at a birthday party in Downing Street. Against the backdrop of all this, the review of Parliament’s working practices announced by Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle is urgently needed.

But there is a risk that it ends up as just another exercise in MPs policing their own behaviour, with slaps on the wrist. What is needed instead is a proper disciplinary procedure in which MPs can be kicked out for wrongdoing, as happens in the world of work.

In any workplace, irrespective of public or private sector, looking at pornography during office hours, or molesting female colleagues – especially whilst drunk – would be a sackable offence on the grounds of gross misconduct.

Why should those standards and sanctions not apply to MPs?

Parliament is not some sort of private members’ club, where different rules of behaviour apply, but a workplace.

The staff who are employed there have to follow rules that any human resources department would recognise as normal practice in every industry, and MPs should be subject to the same disciplines.

They might argue that constituents deliver a verdict on their performance every four years that can result in them being dumped from office, but in between elections we have every right to expect them to behave in a proper manner. If some will not do that voluntarily, then they need to be pushed into it.

Drunkenness is cited by female MPs as one of the main causes of unacceptable behaviour amongst male colleagues.

In that case, the staff of Commons bars should be instructed to do what their counterparts in pubs across the land do every night – refuse to serve a customer who has had too much.

There is no reason why MPs who are habitually drunk and making a nuisance of themselves should not be reported to the Speaker and immediately suspended from Parliament without pay – with the public being told.

That would stamp out unacceptable behaviour pretty sharpish without any sort of labyrinthine investigation process by exposing wrongdoers to the disapproval of their constituents and party associations, both of whom expect them to be doing their job, not getting hammered on subsidised booze.

A pattern of behaviour seems to have become entrenched amongst too many MPs, the result of an exaggerated sense of entitlement and over-inflated egos.

Unless this is stamped on, our politics will descend further into disrepute and the already yawning gulf between the electorate and the people we have every right to expect to serve us responsibly will grow even wider.