Even as Conservative whips claimed they were hunting down the MP who made anonymous derogatory comments about Angela Rayner this week, one senior Tory minister was already making light of it.
Following the claim that Labour’s deputy leader had been using a “Basic Instinct” ploy to distract Boris Johnson, a male minister was seen making a series of jokes about women crossing and uncrossing their legs suggestively while in one of parliament’s bars. The remarks, witnessed by someone working in Westminster, are the latest sign of a macho culture that it is struggling to shake off.
Five years on from another scandal at the heart of government, which resulted in the sacking of the effective deputy prime minister, Damian Green, the slur against Rayner led to female politicians raising the alarm over ongoing alleged misogyny and sexual misconduct, including a Conservative MP allegedly caught watching pornography on his phone in the Commons.
Female politicians say sexist and demeaning treatment on the parliamentary estate continues unchecked. “Everybody has experience of sexism, it’s just rife,” said Alex Davies-Jones, Labour MP and shadow minister. “You know, comments about appearance, and comments on what we’re wearing rather than what we’re saying.”
Three cabinet ministers are said to be among more than 50 MPs facing complaints of sexual misconduct made to the parliamentary watchdog.
Many of the most blatant examples relate to after-hours drinking in Westminster’s bars. Lynne Featherstone, who served as equalities minister in the coalition government and now sits in the Lords, recalled an incident on the Commons terrace when she was still an MP.
A Labour MP in his sixties “kept saying to his researchers, ‘come and sit on my knee’ and different ones were taking a turn sitting on his knee and giggling and stuff”, she said. “It was just horrible to watch. He was pulling them onto his knee and they were giggling because they were young and impressionable.”
The Labour MP Jess Phillips recalled seeing similar behaviour from Conservative MPs. “I’ve watched older Tory men having young women sitting on their laps on the terrace on a late night,” she said.
In the chamber itself, sexism comes most often in the form of patronising or derogatory comments. It is more than a decade since David Cameron told Labour’s Angela Eagle to “calm down dear” during a Commons exchange, but women in parliament say belittling treatment is still routine.
Phillips, who describes herself as “quite rowdy in the chamber”, says she is frequently shushed by Tories on the opposite benches. “You get men, and it is always men, on the opposite benches who treat you like a harridan for behaving just exactly as they behave. I’ve had people putting their fingers to their lips and doing the calm down sign with their hands.
“They wouldn’t necessarily perceive that they were being sexist, but they wouldn’t do it to a man. They wouldn’t shush like you’re a child in a classroom.”
Anna Soubry, a former minister and Conservative MP until she moved to Change UK in 2019, said one Tory colleague used to tease her from the benches during every prime minister’s questions.
“In parliament, it gets very hot and stuffy, and I’d sit there and fan myself with the order paper and I’d get this: ‘Ooh, are you having a hot flush dear?’ It really pissed me off because I wasn’t but I didn’t know what to say.”
When she pulled the colleague up on it, she said he got defensive and said it was “just a joke”. Soubry believes he was doing it “to try to humiliate”. She added: “Obviously I never complained about it because there was no point.”
Soubry also said a fellow Tory MP once made an “incredibly shocking” and “excruciatingly embarrassing” comment about her body that she reported to the whips at the time, who spoke to the man about it.
Phillips believes the worst behaviour comes back to a culture of politicians, particularly men, protecting each other. “I think there are some people who do not know how to behave and are covered by power and friendship to behave that way,” she said.
“That’s the problem. The culture in Westminster is not an overtly sexist one. The culture in Westminster is one where people protect their own, but their own being men. Men are much more likely to be protected by other men than women are to be protected.”
Female clerks, researchers and others working on the parliamentary estate without the status of being an MP can face worse problems. Phillips said: “A lot of clerks in the past have told me that they’ve been treated very sexistly and treated like little girls and like they’re stupid.”
Louisa Casson, 30, worked as a political adviser in an MP’s office in her mid 20s before moving to charity work. She said that “laddish banter” was commonplace, with MPs commenting on colleagues’ wives and giggling at puerile jokes.
“You’d get quite macho banter in policy meetings which I’d find extraordinary or just quite uncomfortable,” she said. “There was a conversation about blue tits at one point, in the context of the bird, and a couple of MPs were sniggering and making jokes about that.”
For women in a tiny minority when they first became MPs, the latest uproar and debate offer hope, despite the behaviour they’ve exposed.
Harriet Harman, who by October will have spent 40 years sitting on parliament’s green benches, said: “There’s always been a male impunity for misogyny in the House of Commons. And when there was just a handful of us women MPs, and we were very marginalised, it felt impossible to do anything about it.
“It was my everyday experience having a climate of misogyny from MPs that was amplified by a collusive press. But for me and the other women at the time, we just didn’t feel there was anything we could do about it. We just had to grin and bear it and try to get on with our work.”
Harman believes the latest backlash against sexism in Westminster could mark its death knell. “It’s not all men [who] are doing it,” she said. “But all women have experienced it in the House of Commons. And they’re just calling time on it.
“Now, because there are many more woman MPs, and because they are much more confident and assertive, and because there are woman MPs on all sides, they are not prepared to put up with it anymore. And therefore, the age of male misogyny in the House of Commons is going to end … there’s going to be no hiding place.”