PESTMINSTER RETURNS — AGAIN

“Surely sexual harassment is worse than Googling tractors?”

Politico London Newsletter

 Boris Johnson wakes up in London today probably wishing he could jump back on a plane as he grapples with the fallout from the resignation of his deputy chief whip in the Conservative Party’s fifth major sex pest scandal in three months.

SCOOP — PM under pressure: Playbook can reveal this morning that Johnson was made aware of allegations of inappropriate behavior by Chris Pincher before the last reshuffle, at the time when Pincher was in the frame as a potential chief whip.

More detail: Three sources, including one Tory MP who personally raised the issue, told Playbook that the PM was made aware of complaints about Pincher’s conduct but appointed him deputy chief whip in February anyway. No. 10 did not deny the story last night.

Hang on, what’s happened? Pincher quit as the government’s deputy chief whip just before 8 p.m. — in a cracking scoop by the Sun’s Noa Hoffman (less than a week into her new job with the paper) and Kate Ferguson — with a terse letter which began: “Dear prime minister, last night I drank far too much. I’ve embarrassed myself and other people which is the last thing I want to do and I apologize to those concerned.”

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The allegation: Pincher allegedly groped two men on Wednesday night while drunk at the Carlton Club in St James’s, triggering several complaints by MPs to the whips’ office about his behavior — read the Sun story in full here. A witness who was present told Playbook that Pincher was “clearly trying to seduce several young men.” The Guardian reports — and Playbook has heard too — that Tory Whip Sarah Dines is one of the people who reported Pincher.

The question now: Why did the PM decided to appoint Pincher back in February as the No. 2 in command in the whips’ office — which is responsible for overseeing and disciplining MPs’ behavior — when Johnson had been made aware of concerns about Pincher’s own conduct?

No. 10 view: A No. 10 source said that allegations about Pincher had been conveyed to the PM’s chief of staff Steve Barclay, who flagged them to the Cabinet Office propriety and ethics team during the February reshuffle and refused to sign off the appointment until they were looked at. Pincher’s appointment was signed off only after PET gave it the green light, the No. 10 source claimed, something which delayed the reshuffle by hours (though it was reported at the time that the delay was partly down to Pincher resisting the deputy title when he had been expecting to get the top job).

Open secret: In this essential piece in May, POLITICO’s Esther Webber reported claims that a member of the government had a “minder” to ensure he left events without drinking too much and getting into trouble — and we can now reveal the MP concerned was Pincher. That obviously went well. He did not respond to a request for comment last night, and a senior party official said they were not aware of the claim.

What the Tories are saying: A Tory Party source told the Mail’s Jason Groves, among others: “The PM thinks he’s done the decent thing by resigning. There is no need for an investigation and no need to suspend the whip.” Playbook is told that the PM texted Pincher last night to accept his resignation and thank him for taking responsibility for his wrongdoing.

However: It doesn’t feel like that line will hold for long — Twitter is already flooded with incensed quotes from Tory MPs who think the position is untenable. A Tory source pointed out to Playbook: “If anyone makes a complaint against him, CCHQ would have to investigate (and given he’s admitted he did it) they’d have to suspend party membership. You can’t keep the whip if you’re not a member without it looking ridiculous.” And an influential female Tory MP said: “If it’s a sexual assault and he’s admitted it, he needs to lose the whip.”

Knives out: Another well-connected Tory MP said: “No. 10’s initial response — suggesting he’s done ‘the decent thing’ and allowing him to retain the whip — tells us that Boris Johnson doesn’t take allegations of sexual assault as seriously as the leader of a government should and is the latest demonstration of why he is unfit to be prime minister. The standards of behavior expected in an organization are set by the person who leads it.”

Needless to say: The two people allegedly groped by Pincher on Wednesday may well not be satisfied with the No. 10 response. Their identity was unclear amid conflicting reports last night — Sky’s Beth Rigby and the Mail’s Jason Groves hear that at least one is an MP, Insider’s Cat Neilan hears that at least one is not; according to the Guardian both are said to be staffers.  

Activist distress: It’s difficult to overstate the dismay among loyal Conservative Party activists and strategists — including some in government — about this state of affairs. A Tory source told Playbook: “Pincher had earned the nickname ‘arse pincher’ and his impropriety was known about. He was empowered nonetheless.” And a party member affected by the Imran Ahmad Khan case summed up the sentiment among younger Conservatives to Esther: “Feels a bit like Groundhog Day in the party right now.”

Incredibly: Pincher writes a monthly column “on drink” for the Critic.

What’s more: Pincher had to resign as a whip back in 2017, after being accused of drunkenly making a pass at former Olympic rower Alex Story. Story alleged at the time that Pincher attempted to untuck his shirt, massaged his neck and whispered: “You’ll go far in the Conservative Party.” Pincher referred himself to the police after the incident and was cleared of wrongdoing by a Conservative Party investigation. But the decision to reappoint him to a more senior role in the whips office after that whole scandal — let alone after having been warned about fresh concerns from MPs — is a questionable judgement call to say the least.

Of course there’s this: Pincher was instrumental in shoring up support for the PM last winter when the Partygate scandal was at its peak and was effectively rewarded with the deputy chief whip’s job, as the Telegraph’s Ben Riley-Smith points out.

Reminder: Neil Parish was suspended from the Tory whip after he referred himself to the standards commissioner over complaints he had been looking at porn on his phone in the Commons. He claimed he had chanced upon the offending page accidentally while looking up farming tools. As one Tory staffer quipped last night: “Surely sexual harassment is worse than Googling tractors?”