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‘Bringing Back Johnson would be a Betrayal of Sexual Harassment Survivors’

The former Prime Minister’s downfall followed his claims he did not know about sexual assault allegations against an ally – that alone means he should not be returned to high office, argues Sian Norris

Then Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks back into No. 10 Downing Street. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA/Alamy

Bringing Back Johnson would be a Betrayal of Sexual Harassment Survivors

The former Prime Minister’s downfall followed his claims he did not know about sexual assault allegations against an ally – that alone means he should not be returned to high office, argues Sian Norris

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“We’ve got to let bygones be bygones… we all make mistakes from time to time and nobody’s perfect”, Conservative MP Brendan Clarke-Smith told Matt Frei on Channel 4 News as he made his pitch as to why Boris Johnson should return as Prime Minister.

You’d be forgiven for not being quite sure which ‘mistake’ it was that did for Johnson in the end. Was it becoming the first sitting Prime Minister to be convicted of a criminal offence? Was it the parties that took place under his watch during Coronavirus lockdowns? Was it the wallpaper and the donor? The scandal that engulfed Parliament as he defended Owen Paterson? The 130,000 deaths from COVID? The failure to wholly grapple with a cost of living crisis that is pushing millions into fuel poverty?

It was, in fact, none of these. The ‘mistake’ that brought down Boris Johnson was his flexibility with the truth about what he knew, and when he knew it, about allegations of sexual misconduct by his ally and former Deputy Chief Whip Chris Pincher.

In early July, Pincher was accused of sexually assaulting two men at a private members’ club in London a few days before, in late June.

Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner said “the latest episode”, referring to the June allegations, showed that standards in public life had dropped under Johnson. She demanded he explain why Pincher was made a parliamentary whip and how he could stay a Conservative MP. Pincher was shortly after suspended from the party.

It then emerged that Pincher had also been accused of sexual assault in 2017. By 3 July, six more allegations had surfaced, spanning the previous decade. Pincher denies all of the allegations. 

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Johnson denied having any knowledge of allegations against Pincher when he appointed him as Deputy Chief Whip earlier this year. He later had to confirm this was not, in fact, the case. It became clear that Pincher’s behaviour had long been the subject of jokes – Johnson allegedly referred to Pincher as “handsy” and Dominic Cummings said Johnson joked about him being “Pincher by name, pincher by nature” as early as 2020.

However, various ministers had already been sent onto TV and radio stations to support his earlier version of events, causing widespread anger and embarrassment. 

Johnson was “thrown out by your party for lying, essentially,” Frei challenged Clarke Smith. “I don’t think that’s really fair,” was his reply. It is fair. More importantly, it’s the truth. 

The mistake that brought down Boris Johnson was his dishonesty and his decision to promote an ally despite knowing that he had a history of sexual misconduct allegations. It was the choice to ignore the impact of sexual harassment and sexual assault in favour of shoring up support. And that decision took place in a House of Common where, at that time, 56 MPs were facing allegations of sexually inappropriate behaviour, ranging from harassment to rape. 

The Other Side of the Story

As the Conservative Party remains engulfed in chaos, there was another news story yesterday which, in any normal political time, would have led the headlines: the publication of the report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Seven years in the making, the report laid bare the horrific scale of child sexual abuse in the UK, historic and present. It found that one in six girls and one in 20 boys experience child sexual abuse before the age of 16 – a statistic that should shame society. 

More than 7,000 victims and survivors shared their experiences with the report’s authors. They told how they were “groomed and manipulated”, how “I was just a child”, how “no one took it seriously” and how “they called me a liar”.

The testimony was brave, raw, honest – and, if it was painful to read, it must have been so much more painful to speak.

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Back in 2019, Boris Johnson slammed the £60 million spent “on some investigation into child abuse” as being “spaffed up the wall”. It was unclear what £60 million cost Johnson was referring to, although his comments came as the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse continued to hear claims that political parties have turned a blind eye to abuse.

During his time in office, Johnson did speak about his commitment to women’s safety and during his time as Foreign Secretary he championed gender equality. 

But it cannot be ignored that Johnson’s downfall was because he chose to lie about what he knew, and when, about allegations of sexual misconduct against an ally. In doing so, he let down victims and survivors of sexual violence and harassment.

Any return to Number 10 for Johnson would send a clear signal from the Conservative Party to victims and survivors everywhere: when it comes to securing power, you are expendable. 

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