A Conservative party minister is being investigated by the Cabinet Office after he admitted sending his former assistant to buy sex toys.
Mark Garnier confirmed to the Mail on Sunday that he had called Caroline Edmondson “sugar tits”, and accompanied her on a visit to a sex shop in Soho in 2010.
Edmondson claims that he gave her cash to buy vibrators, and waited outside on the street while she purchased them.
But Garnier, the MP for Wyre Forest in Worcestershire – who is also an undersecretary of state for international trade – rejected the assertion that his behaviour amounted to sexual harassment.
“It absolutely does not constitute harassment,” he said.
The Cabinet Office inquiry into Garnier’s alleged behaviour was announced by health secretary Jeremy Hunt on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday 29 October, The Guardian reports.
“The stories, if they are true, are obviously totally unacceptable and the Cabinet Office will be conducting an investigation into whether there’s been a breach of ministerial code in this particular case,” said Hunt.
Speaking to the Mail on Sunday, Edmonson alleged that Garnier sent her into the sex shop to buy two vibrators, which he claimed were for his wife and a female assistant in his constituency office. He waited outside the shop while she went inside, she said.
She added that he called her “sugar tits” in a bar, during a conversation about the possibility of her going to work for another minister.
“He said to me in the hearing of others, ‘You are going nowhere, sugar tits’,” said Edmondson. “He was worried I was going to go off and work for another MP. It was awful.”
Edmondson, who stopped working for Garnier shortly after the incidents took place, is now Commons secretary to former Cabinet minister John Whittingdale.
Garnier has defended his behaviour. He acknowledged that given the cultural shift that seems to be taking place in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, his treatment of Edmondson could “look like dinosaur behaviour”.
However, he said that the trip to the sex shop was nothing more than “good-humoured high jinks”. He and Edmondson visited the shop in Soho after they had attended a Christmas lunch together, he said.
Garnier added that his use of the phrase “sugar tits” was part of “an amusing conversation” about Gavin & Stacey. The term is occasionally used affectionately by characters in the BBC sitcom, which ended in 2010.
The revelations about Garnier came as prominent UK politicians found themselves engulfed in controversies related to sexual harassment. On Sunday 29 October, Tory MP Stephen Crabb apologised after it was revealed he’d sent sexually explicit text messages to a 19-year-old woman.
Crabb, a devout Christian who ran for the Tory leadership in 2016 following David Cameron’s resignation, admitted sexting the young woman after she came into the Commons for a job interview.
This is the second time Crabb has been caught up in a sexting scandal. The married MP was forced to resign from his position as Work and Pensions secretary in July 2016 after reports that he had sent explicit WhatsApp messages to a woman in her twenties.
Sky News reports that a list of 36 Conservative MPs – including 20 ministers – accused of inappropriate behaviour has been doing the rounds on political blogs.
Environment secretary Michael Gove has also come under fire for joking about the Harvey Weinstein scandal on national radio. During an appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Gove told presenter John Humphrys: “Sometimes I think that coming into the studio with you, John, is a bit like going into Harvey Weinstein’s bedroom.
“You just pray that you can emerge with your dignity intact.”
Gove later apologised for the remarks, which he described as a “clumsy attempt at humour”. However, he was roundly condemned for the ‘joke’ by other politicians and commentators.
“Women being abused and raped is not a laughing matter,” wrote Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon on Twitter. “And it doesn’t make us ‘humourless’ to say so.”
Referring to James Corden’s poorly-received jokes about Weinstein, Labour MP Stella Creasy said: “This look didn’t work for James Corden… Gove joking about sexual assault just as crass too.”
Prime Minister Theresa May has said that she is committed to cracking down on the problem of sexual harassment in Westminster. On Sunday 29 October, she wrote to John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, asking him to enforce a grievance procedure for staff who want to report MPs’ behaviour.
“I believe it important that those who work in the House of Commons are treated properly and fairly, as would be expected in any modern workplace,” she said.
Conservative Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom, meanwhile, is scheduled to appear in the Commons to update MPs on how disciplinary procedures will be overhauled in regard to sexual harassment.
Images: Rex Features / BBC