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LONDON — There’s no doubt that politicians need scrutiny.
But should elected officials really need specially assigned “watchers” to prevent their drunken misbehavior in bars and clubs?
It’s one of the issues looming over Westminster this weekend as the Conservative Party descends into yet another sex scandal following the alleged alcohol-fueled offenses of senior MP Chris Pincher.
It follows a string of recent scandals, including the resignation 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 year.
Pincher resigned as Deputy Chief Government Whip on Thursday after the Sun newspaper alleged he groped two men while intoxicated at a private club. In a resignation letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Pincher admitted to “drinking way too much” and “embarrassing himself and other people” on a chaotic evening in central London.
Claims made to POLITICO in May – that a member of the government had been assigned an informal ‘gatekeeper’ to ensure he left events without drinking too much and getting into trouble – resurfaced in the aftermath 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 he was unaware of the allegation.
But several current and former MPs have confirmed that the practice of ‘dealing’ with problematic MPs is widespread in Westminster and extends beyond a single politician or political party.
Generally — but not exclusively — the task of guarding is entrusted to members of the whips’ office. A former Tory MP says current chief whip Chris Heaton-Harris has in the past been the person to ‘deal with’ Pincher, although a senior party official insisted it was was “completely wrong”.
Whips’ primary responsibility is to ensure that the government’s legislative business passes through parliament, but they also act as an informal human resources department for their party, tasked with upholding standards of conduct among other 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 keep the hounds from wandering away from the pack.
Sometimes known as “black magic”, the whip is notoriously secretive. While work was once synonymous with bully tactics traditionally used to ensure MPs toe the party line, modern office holders insist their role is now largely pastoral.
Yet several current and former whips have confirmed they also have an informal responsibility to police MPs deemed to be at risk of misbehaviour, usually in the parliamentary maze of late-night restaurants and bars.
“When we were there for late night votes, it was quite common to walk back into the whips office and someone say, ‘Have you seen the status of ‘X’? “said a former minister.
A whip would then go speak to the MP in question, the former minister said, to emphasize that they were being watched and distract them from the people they had been drinking with.
Two other long-serving Tory MPs were constantly ‘busy’ with a web of whips due to obvious drinking and anger issues, three colleagues said.
MPs are particularly scrutinized at their parties’ annual conferences – four- or five-day political galas held outside London in different cities across the UK, and tending to focus on alcohol-fueled nighttime events.
On the lookout
All major political parties aim to have at least one whip on duty in the main conference bar each evening, on the lookout for MPs misbehaving or at risk of misbehaving.
A former government whip used to stand in the hotel bar with the same glass of wine for an entire evening, a party activist recalls, so other MPs who came and went would believe he was drinking with them.
Problematic drinking and associated behaviors are seen as a particular problem among MPs who have no family support network around them and spend much of their free time in bars in Westminster.
The question is far from limited to the Conservative Party alone.
In February, MP Neil Coyle was suspended from Labor after a drunken incident at a Commons bar. Last month, SNP Chief Whip Patrick Grady resigned after he sexually harassed a junior member of his party in 2016. He said “excessive alcohol consumption” had been a factor.
“Being an MP can be a very lonely job,” said a former Labor MP. “People will try to find comfort in different things. You’re in a weird situation, you’re isolated and you rely on each other to make sure you don’t do anything stupid.
But other MPs reject the rhetoric of a “culture” that encourages inappropriate behavior.
“To suggest it’s a problem of drinking culture and late nights is bullshit,” Shadow Victims Minister Jess Phillips said. “A lot of nurses work late nights and don’t watch porn on the wards.”