Former Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke’s conviction for sexual assault was a victory for the women who reported him – and for all survivors. But the news that a sitting Conservative MP is now being investigated on suspicion of rape shows that we can’t stop here, says Women’s Equality Party leader Mandu Reid.
Last week, Charlie Elphicke was convicted of sexually assaulting two women. One of the allegations related to an incident in 2007, and the other was made by a woman who worked for him in parliament in 2016, whom he assaulted twice. I have nothing but admiration and respect for these women. I can’t fathom the courage it took to report a sitting MP, as Elphicke was at the time, and the resilience it must have taken to get through the three years between the allegations being reported to the police and finally hearing the jurors’ unanimous guilty verdict.
Elphicke’s conviction was a victory for those women, and for all survivors. It was a victory for the #MeToo movement, which prompted Elphicke’s earlier victim to come forward. Her testimony established a pattern of his grotesque criminal behaviour, of abusing the trust of women over whom he held significant power.
The guilty verdict was also a victory for four phenomenal women who became first-time parliamentary candidates for the Women’s Equality (WE) Party in December last year: Eljai Morais, Gemma Evans, Serena Laidley and Jenn Selby. These women, all survivors of sexual or domestic violence, challenged MPs with unresolved allegations of violence, harassment or assault against them. They all held the other political parties to account for their failures to take harassment and abuse seriously. Morais stood in Dover, Charlie Elphicke’s seat.
Yet just three days after Elphicke’s conviction, The Sunday Times broke the story that a sitting Conservative MP is now being investigated by the Met Police following four allegations of sexual assault – including rape. In many other jobs, you would be suspended if you were the subject of a sexual assault investigation. But the unnamed MP has not had the whip suspended.
He will now spend the summer in his constituency, meeting with vulnerable constituents who often look to their MPs for help navigating public services and the welfare system. If his identity is revealed, he will no doubt declare his intention to clear his name, as his legal right – but he will borrow from the power and credibility leant to him by his party to do so.
You have to ask: have they learned nothing from Elphicke? After he was reported to police in November 2017, Elphicke was suspended by the Conservative Party – but was still able to sit as an independent MP. The Conservatives then reinstated him for a significant Brexit vote in December 2018, despite the ongoing police investigation. He was only re-suspended by the Conservative Party when the police charged him with three counts of sexual assault in July 2019.
Again, however, Elphicke continued to sit as an independent MP and vote on legislation and parliamentary matters – including on the role that MPs should play in the independent parliamentary process for investigating reports of MPs’ misconduct. Last September, the prime minister publicly praised Elphicke’s efforts towards preparedness for Brexit in the House of Commons, lending him additional credibility despite him being, at that time, on bail for sexual assault. You couldn’t make it up.
Morais’s campaign in Dover, speaking out proudly as a survivor and reminding the electorate that Elphicke stood accused of sexual assault, made it impossible for him to stand for re-election and, despite backing from his local Conservative Association to stand as an independent, he finally announced that he would not contest the seat.
But he could have done: the current rules do not prevent prospective MPs standing for election while awaiting trial for sexual assault. If Elphicke had been elected last November, he would only now face an automatic recall petition (where constituents can recall their MP and trigger a by-election) if he received a custodial sentence as a result of his sexual assault convictions.
For too long our political system has enabled and protected men who abuse their power. Party whips have used allegations to ensure MPs vote in line, rather than holding them to account. It is part of the system that has maintained men’s dominance in Westminster and made women feel unwelcome in the halls of power.
In 2019 Keir Starmer signed WE’s pledge to amend legislation to make it easier for constituents to sack their MPs if they are found to have harassed or abused someone by the independent parliamentary investigation process. I am calling on him to now honour that pledge and work with me to take forward that amendment to the Recall Act. And I call on the other Westminster party leaders – Boris Johnson, Ed Davey, Ian Blackford, Liz Saville Roberts and joint Green Party leaders Sian Berry and Jonathan Bartley – to do the same. We must change the rules so that anyone facing unresolved allegations of sexual harassment or assault is ineligible to stand for election.
Women’s experiences of abuse and harassment should never again be used as political currency. Instead, our freedom from it must be a political priority.
According to Rape Crisis, 20% of women and 4% of men have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16 in England and Wales.
If you or anyone you know needs help and support, you can call the Rape Crisis national helpline on 0808 802 9999 (open 12-2.30pm and 7-9.30pm daily). You can also find your nearest centre here or visit the website for more information.