Tory sleaze once caused outrage. Why aren’t we up in arms now?


A lot of people are talking about Tory sleaziness with regard to the recent Lords nominations. But is there, perhaps, an even bigger Tory sleaze issue that should be addressed?
Caroline, by email

I moved to this country in 1990 and one of the ways I got to grips with this strange new land was by watching Spitting Image. People tell me that Spitting Image’s heyday was in the 80s, but I loved it in the 90s, with grey John Major and demented Norman Lamont.

The overarching plotline of 90s Spitting Image was satirising how irredeemably sleazy the Tories were, and by sleazy I mean “having so much disgusting sex”. There was David Mellor in his apocryphal Chelsea shirt, sucking on Antonia de Sancha’s toe; Steven Norris and his five mistresses; Tim Yeo’s campaign against single mothers while simultaneously helping to contribute to their numbers, and on and on it went.

This was all seen as beyond the pale: sex that was extramarital, but – and let’s bear this part in mind, because we’ll be returning to it – consensual. Political nerds will say that the problem was that Major had given his weird “back to basics” speech in 1993, with all the bizarre anti-single mothers and homophobic implications behind his emphasis on so-called “family values”, hence the need to root out any sexual impropriety among his masses.

Now let’s have a look at the Tory landscape two decades later. Much has been written about Boris Johnson’s laughably shoddy Lords appointments. But how are the Tories doing, sexual-morality-wise? Well, there is Charlie Elphicke, who was last month found guilty of three counts of sexual assault. Then there is the anonymous MP who has been accused of rape, relating to four separate incidents, one of which allegedly resulted in the complainant requiring hospitalisation. He is on bail and still has the party whip, even though the woman complained to Mark Spencer, the Tory chief whip, FOUR MONTHS AGO. A source said Spencer had not understood the “magnitude” of the allegations, but Spencer himself insists he is taking them “very seriously” – so seriously he has been frozen into inaction.

Given the outrage 20 years ago over consensual extramarital sex, surely the streets are full of rage at all this non-consensual extramarital sex? After all, we have come so far in our understanding of sexual violence, power and women’s rights. Big up #MeToo, sisters!

Well … not so much, it seems. It is amazing how little discussion there is about how one Tory committed sex crimes and one is alleged to have, and how little this seems to be affecting the Tory brand. For heaven’s sake, Elphicke literally shouted “I’m a naughty Tory” after assaulting one of his victims. You don’t exactly have to reach for the symbolism, folks.

On the one hand, it should not be a surprise that what we shall euphemistically call “sexual incontinence” is flourishing in a government headed by Boris Johnson, a man who won’t – and maybe can’t – confirm how many children he has. But it is, I won’t lie, dismaying to see how little this seems to bother the public. I get that we have all got a lot on at the moment and, yes, the Tories have a massive majority, so they can basically do what they like. But still: it is really, really, really weird how little these stories seem to have cut through.

Only last month, it emerged that rape convictions in England and Wales have fallen to a record low. That is the shot and here is the chaser: simultaneously, the number of rape complaints recorded by the police has shot up. Didn’t people used to care about this stuff? When I was a teenager, it was women talking about sexual violence and abortion that turned me on to feminism. But when I talk to girls and young women now, I don’t hear much reference to either. Until lockdown, I would occasionally give talks at schools and, in recent years, when I asked the girls what feminism meant to them, they would talk about choice and empowerment.

Concerns about violence against women have fallen out of fashion, it seems, maybe out of a fear of so-called “kink-shaming” (hey, some women like it!), maybe because of a general assumption that it has been “fixed”. Well, it hasn’t. It hasn’t even been fixed in our own government. And the really shocking thing is that people just don’t seem to care. Well, Spitting Image is coming back, so maybe that will wake people up. But it feels like this problem might be too big, even for puppets.