The latest sleaze row engulfing the UK Parliament prompted calls for a cultural change but a government minister on Sunday denied that misogyny lies at the centre of British democracy.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng suggested the conduct of “some bad apples” should not be seen as the cultural norm within the walls of Parliament.
“I don’t think there is a culture of misogyny; I think the problem we have is people are working in a really intense environment, there are long hours and I think generally most people know their limits,” he told Sky News.
Days after more than a dozen female MPs relayed their experiences of misogyny, sexual harassment and bullying, Mr Kwarteng told the BBC’s Sunday Morning show that Parliament was a safe place for women to work.
“I think we’ve got to distinguish between some bad apples, people who behave badly and the general environment,” he said.
“There are some bad apples, there are people who have acted very badly and they should be held to account.”
A fierce debate broke out last week about the prevailing culture in Westminster.
A meeting chaired by Chris Heaton-Harris was called on Tuesday after a Mail on Sunday article about Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader. The story included comments from an unnamed Tory MP suggesting Ms Rayner had routinely crossed and uncrossed her legs in the House of Commons while sitting across from Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a bid to distract him.
Mr Johnson put party rivalries aside to condemn the “deplorable misogyny” against Ms Rayner in the article.
During the meeting with Mr Heaton-Harris, the chief whip, a number of female MPs spoke about their negative experiences in Parliament.
Two female MPs, one a minister, said they had witnessed a male MP watching pornography on his phone in the House of Commons chamber.
He was subsequently named as Conservative Neil Parish and an investigation was launched. On Saturday Mr Parish resigned as MP for Tiverton and Honiton in Devon after admitting he had watched porn in Parliament.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said a cultural change was needed to tackle sleaze in Westminster, and suggested Mr Johnson must set a better example for his Conservative MPs.
“We need to listen to women and I’ve spoken to a number of women in the last few days and they’re very clear that whilst there does need to be culture change, those who are engaged in this sort of activity, whether it’s comments about Angela Rayner or whether it’s watching porn in the House of Commons, have to take responsibility,” Mr Starmer said.
He also called for “political leadership”. He said that when a Tory colleague gets into trouble, ministers’ “first instinct is to push it off into the long grass, hide what’s happening, and that’s a political problem because the fish rots from the head”.
Mr Starmer did not give specific answers to solve the problem, instead calling for behavioural and cultural change.
“The Speaker wants to pull parties together, I’m very happy to participate in that,” he said.
Baroness Jenkin of Kennington, a co-founder of the Women2Win group, which aims to attract more Conservative women into politics, summed up the Westminster culture as a “toxic mix of stress, and booze and testosterone and power”.
“I don’t know what the solution is because you can’t do anything about testosterone and you can’t do much about the stress of it, and the power is inevitable. You can do something about the booze,” she told The Sunday Times.