Move follows formal complaint after day of pressure on Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson was embroiled in yet another sleaze scandal on Friday after it emerged he had appointed Tory MP Chris Pincher to a key government role despite being aware of doubts over Mr Pincher’s conduct.
But Tory MPs were furious that the prime minister waited almost 24 hours before suspending Mr Pincher from the party, with one backbencher describing attempts to draw a line under the matter as “farcical”.
The whip was finally withdrawn on Friday afternoon after it was announced that the case was being investigated by parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, launched in the wake of the “Pestminster” scandal.
Mr Pincher resigned as the government’s deputy chief whip – a role that includes responsibilities for MPs’ welfare – late on Thursday, admitting that he had “drunk far too much [and] embarrassed myself” at the exclusive Carlton Club on London’s Piccadilly.
It was his second resignation over sexual misconduct allegations, after he stepped down as a whip in 2017 having been accused of making an unwanted pass at former Olympic rower Alex Story. On that occasion, a Conservative inquiry cleared him of breaching the party’s code of conduct.
But MPs said that stories continued to swirl around Westminster about excessive use of alcohol and inappropriate behaviour.
Downing Street today insisted that Mr Johnson had not been aware of “any specific allegations” relating to the 52-year-old MP in February, when he promoted him to the position of deputy chief whip.
But a No 10 spokesperson had to correct themselves after initially saying that the PM had not known about “any allegations”, in a clear indication that general concerns about Mr Pincher had been raised.
Vetting was carried out by the Cabinet Office propriety and ethics team – as occurs for all new appointments – but the spokesperson said: “In the absence of any formal complaint, it was not appropriate to stop the appointment on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations.”
A close ally of the prime minister, Mr Pincher was promoted from housing minister shortly after playing a prominent role in the “Operation Save Big Dog” drive to see off threats to Mr Johnson’s leadership.
One Tory MP told The Independent: “It’s a total mess. It seems that these issues were flagged at the time of the appointment. If the PM wants to claim that he didn’t know, I’m not sure that that is very credible.”
And a former minister said that the appointment had raised eyebrows on the Conservative benches because it was known that Mr Pincher had “previous”.
“A lot of us were surprised when he was appointed to the role,” said the ex-minister. “It was always a pretty chancy appointment, because everyone knew he has a fondness for alcohol.”
The failure to withdraw the whip immediately, as happened in earlier sexual misconduct scandals like that involving Rob Roberts, “does seem to me to suggest Chris was being treated differently”, he added.
Neil Parish, who quit as a Tory MP after admitting watching pornography in the Commons chamber, said that he was “very upset” that double standards were being applied.
Speaking ahead of Mr Pincher’s suspension, he said: “He may be deputy chief whip, he may have even been the man who removed the whip from me, so come on, let’s be fair.”
Two senior Tory women issued a call for a formal code of conduct to be drawn up for Conservative MPs to ensure that all are treated “in a fair, independent manner so as to avoid any suspicion of bias”.
Caroline Nokes and Karen Bradley, who respectively chair the women and equalities committee and the procedure committee, said the party risked “serious reputational damage” because of an “inconsistent and unclear” approach to complaints of sexual misconduct.
The pair said that, without exception, MPs facing allegations should be suspended and told to stay away from parliament until inquiries are concluded.
The Prospect union, which represents a large number of parliamentary staff, called for all MPs accused of sexual offences to be denied access to the estate.
“We seem unable to go a week without yet another revelation of appalling sexual misconduct by MPs, yet parliament – as an employer – fails to take assertive action to protect its employees, MPs’ staff, and indeed other MPs,” said general secretary Mike Clancy.
Mr Johnson’s former aide Dominic Cummings said that concerns were routinely raised over MPs’ suitability for government office when it came to reshuffles.
“I’ve said many times for many years, the political parties select for sexual deviants, incompetent narcissists, sociopaths,” he tweeted. “It’s a feature not a bug.
“When you sit in reshuffle meetings, it’s normal to go down a list like: Pervert; Under investigation by National Crime Agency (he doesn’t know); Drunk; Sex pest; Sex pest; Dodgy donors; Yes she’s ok but she’s useless; Moron; Moron; He’s OK; Sex pest; She’s actually good [laughter]; Dodgepot etc.”
The government’s former top lawyer Jonathan Jones agreed: “From my occasional, marginal involvement in reshuffles, this sounds about right. And then half of them get appointed anyway.”
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said that Mr Johnson had to be “dragged kicking and screaming into taking any action at all”. “He just can’t be trusted to do the right thing,” she said. “This whole scandal is yet more evidence of his appalling judgement. It’s time for Conservative MPs to show this chaotic prime minister the door before he can do any more damage.”
Liberal Democrat chief whip Wendy Chamberlain said Mr Pincher should quit as an MP if the allegations against him are proven.
“It should never have taken Boris Johnson this long to act and withdraw the whip,” she said. “Once again it seems Johnson has had to be forced into doing the right thing.
“There can be no more cover-ups or excuses. If this investigation confirms these serious allegations, Chris Pincher will surely have to resign.”
Meanwhile Downing Street announced that Rochester and Strood MP Kelly Tolhurst had been appointed to fill Mr Pincher’s former post as deputy chief whip.