British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been hit by a whirlwind of sleaze allegations as the latest scandal to engulf Downing Street adds to his woes.
Mr Johnson “was aware of some allegations” made against Chris Pincher when he appointed him Tory deputy chief whip in February, the prime minister’s official spokesman admitted on Monday. However, his representative insisted such accusations had either been resolved or were deemed not serious enough to prevent his elevation to the government post.
Questions are mounting over precisely how much Mr Johnson knew about Mr Pincher's past actions, and the opposition Labour Party is pressing Downing Street over the handling of the issue.
Mr Pincher last week quit his government post after claims he had drunkenly groped two men at a private members’ club in London. Within 24 hours of handing in his resignation letter to Number 10 he was suspended from the Conservative Party. The MP for Tamworth in Staffordshire will sit as an independent in the House of Commons while an official investigation is conducted.
Mr Pincher had already quit the whips’ office in 2017 after a complaint that he had made an unwanted pass at former Olympic rower and Conservative candidate Alex Story. Mr Story, who was a young Tory activist at the time, alleged that year that the MP untucked the back of his shirt, massaged his neck and whispered: “You’ll go far in the Tory Party”.
New allegations came to light at the weekend after Mr Pincher said he was seeking “professional medical support”. The Mail on Sunday alleged that he threatened to report a parliamentary researcher to her boss after she tried to stop his “lecherous” advances to a young man at a Conservative Party conference. The Sunday Times alleged that he made unwanted passes at two Tory MPs in 2017 and 2018. A Conservative politician told The Independent he was groped on two occasions by Mr Pincher, first in December 2021 and most recently in June.
As Mr Johnson began his week in Number 10 following an eight-day international trip which took him to Rwanda, Germany and Spain, he faced demands to lay out clearly what he knew about Mr Pincher before elevating him to a role in his administration.
Dominic Cummings, the former adviser to the prime minister turned arch-critic, alleged that Mr Johnson had referred to the MP as “Pincher by name, pincher by nature” long before appointing him in February.
The prime minister’s official spokesman confirmed that Mr Johnson “was aware of some reports and some allegations” about Mr Pincher when he was appointed to the whips' office.
“At the time the PM was not aware of any specific allegations,” he said. “In the absence of any formal complaint it wasn’t deemed appropriate to stop the appointment because of any unsubstantiated allegations.”
Veteran Tory backbench MPs have criticised Boris Johnson for handing Mr Pincher a top job due to the lawmaker’s “risky behaviour”.
A former minister told The National that Mr Pincher’s appointment to the post in February this year had “raised a few eyebrows”, given widespread knowledge on the MP’s past actions.
“It was quite well known within Westminster that he drank,” he said. “I think the problem here was that the prime minister appointed a man who had got a track record of, how can I put it, ‘risky behaviour’. No one ever thought he would go back to the whips’ office and that certainly raised a few eyebrows.”
Mr Johnson is reeling from a succession of defeats in recent months including the “partygate” affair in which he was fined for breaking his own Covid-19 lockdown rules and two by-elections defeats, each triggered by the resignation of a disgraced Tory MP. Neil Parish resigned after admitting he had watched pornography in the Commons, while Imran Ahmad Khan stepped down after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy.
In June the prime minister survived a vote of confidence, but 41 per cent of MPs in his party voted against him.
Earlier this year Mr Johnson caused widespread anger when he falsely claimed Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer had failed to prosecute notorious sex offender Jimmy Savile when he ran the Crown Prosecution Service.
Late last year Mr Johnson’s government was rocked by allegations of sleaze after attempting to rewrite MP standards in a bid to save Conservative Owen Paterson from suspension. Mr Paterson was found to have breached lobbying rules and dramatically resigned after the prime minister was forced to do an about-turn on plans to save his skin.
On Monday Education Minister Will Quince became the latest member of Mr Johnson’s Cabinet sent out to defend him in the media. The junior minister questioned the credibility of Mr Cummings, but declined to fully deny that he was aware of general rumours linked to Mr Pincher.
Mr Quince, who repeatedly said Mr Johnson was not aware of specific allegations against Mr Pincher, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There are a lot of rumours and gossip around Westminster … If I had a pound for every rumour that I’d heard about another MP, then I’d be a very wealthy man.”
Labour shadow minister of state Baroness Jenny Chapman told BBC Breakfast: “We want to know who knew what and when and why those decisions were made the way they were.
“I don’t think anybody in Westminster believes that Boris Johnson did not know about the allegations about Mr Pincher.”
The Pincher scandal will add to fears within the Conservative Party that keeping Mr Johnson as leader will damage the party's prospects of winning the next general election.
Jeremy Hunt, who served as foreign secretary and health secretary in former prime minister Theresa May’s administration, said the next election would be decided not by the “partygate” affair, but by the state of the economy.
Mr Hunt, a persistent backbench critic of Mr Johnson, contested the 2019 Conservative leadership contest and has not ruled out standing in any future race.
“The next election won’t be decided on whether or not there were inappropriate parties in Downing Street during the pandemic,” he told guests at an event to promote his new book.
“I think the next election will be decided on the economy. And the core reason that ordinary voters vote Conservative is because they think that we will look after the economy better and therefore there’ll be better prospects for them and their families.
“But at the moment, because of all the global shocks that we’ve had, people don’t feel that confidence.
“So I think that the biggest single challenge is to get the economy growing again.”