Press play to listen to this article
LONDON — There’s no doubt politicians need careful scrutiny.
But should elected officials really need specially-assigned “minders” to prevent their drunken misbehavior in bars and clubs?
That’s one of the questions gripping Westminster this weekend as the Conservative Party descends into yet another sex scandal following the alcohol-fueled alleged misdemeanors of senior MP Chris Pincher.
It follows a string of recent scandals including the resignations of fellow Tory MPs Neil Parish, for watching pornography in the House of Commons, and Imran Ahmad Khan, who was jailed for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy.
Pincher resigned as the government’s deputy chief whip Thursday after the Sun newspaper alleged he had drunkenly groped two men at a private members’ club. In a resignation letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Pincher admitted to having “drank far too much” and “embarrassed myself and other people” on a chaotic night out in central London.
Claims made to POLITICO back in May — that a member of the government had been assigned an informal “minder” to ensure he left events without drinking too much and getting into trouble — resurfaced in the wake of his resignation.
Pincher did not respond to a request for comment on the allegation that he was indeed the MP in question, and a senior party official said they were not aware of the claim.
But multiple current and former MPs confirmed the practice of “minding” problematic MPs is widespread in Westminster, and stretches beyond just a single politician or single political party.
Generally — but not exclusively — the task of minding is assigned to members of the the whips’ office. One former Conservative MP said the current chief whip, Chris Heaton-Harris, had in the past been the person to “look after” Pincher, although a senior party official insisted this was “completely not true.”
The whips’ primary responsibility is to ensure the government’s legislative business passes through parliament, but they also act as an informal human resources service for their party, responsible for enforcing standards of conduct among fellow MPs.
The term dates back to the 18th century when it was known as “whipping-in,” a reference to the assistant in a fox hunt, whose job it is to stop hounds straying from the pack.
Sometimes known as the “dark arts,” whipping is notoriously secretive. While the job was once synonymous with the bully-boy tactics traditionally used to ensure MPs toe the party line, modern-day office-holders insist their role is now largely pastoral.
Yet several current and former whips confirmed they were also given an informal responsibility to watch over MPs deemed at risk of bad behavior, typically in parliament’s warren of late-night restaurants and bars.
“When we were there for late-night votes, it would be quite common to go back into the whips’ office and for someone to say, ‘have you seen the state of ‘X’?’” said one ex-minister.
A whip would then go and speak to the MP in question, the former minister said, in order to underline that they were being watched, and to distract them from the people with whom they had been drinking.
Two other long-serving Conservative MPs were constantly “minded” by a network of whips because of obvious alcohol and anger issues, three colleagues said.
MPs are particularly closely supervised at their parties’ annual conferences — four- or five-day political galas staged outside of London in different cities around the U.K., and tending to center on late-night, booze-fuelled events.
On the look-out
All the major political parties aim to have at least one whip on duty in the main conference bar each night, on the look-out for MPs either misbehaving or at risk of doing so.
One former government whip used to stand at the hotel bar with the same glass of wine for an entire evening, a party activist recalled, so that other MPs coming and going would believe he was drinking along with them.
Problematic drinking and associated behavior is seen as a particular issue among MPs who do not have a network of family support around them, and spend much of their free time in Westminster’s bars.
The issue is far from confined to just the Conservative Party.
In February, the MP Neil Coyle was suspended from the Labour Party after a drunken incident in a Commons bar. Last month, SNP Chief Whip Patrick Grady resigned after sexually harassing a junior member of his party in 2016. He said “excessive consumption of alcohol” had been a factor.
“Being an MP can be a very lonely job,” said one ex-Labour MP. “People will try and find solace in different things. You are in a weird situation, you’re isolated and you rely on each other to make sure that you don’t do anything stupid.”
But other MPs reject the talk of a “culture” which encourages inappropriate behavior.
“To suggest it’s a problem of a drinking culture and late nights is bullshit,” said shadow victims minister Jess Phillips. “Plenty of nurses work late nights, and aren’t watching porn on the wards.”