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PM faces backlash for delay suspending MP over 'disturbing groping' allegations
1 July 2022, 17:07 | Updated: 2 July 2022, 00:25
The Conservative whip has been suspended from Chris Pincher after an investigation was launched into allegations he drunkenly groped two men at a private members' club.
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Boris Johnson bowed to pressure after a complaint about the MP was made to Parliament's watchdog that examines allegations of bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct.
Fresh allegations emerged against Chris Pincher after the Prime Minister suspended him when an investigation was launched by Parliament's sexual misconduct watchdog on Friday.
Mr Pincher dramatically quit as Tory deputy chief whip after a drunken incident in which he allegedly groped two guests at a London club.
The Prime Minister had been resisting calls to go further and remove the whip, meaning the Tamworth MP would sit as an independent in the Commons.
But on Friday, the action was taken after a formal complaint was made to the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS).
A spokeswoman for Conservative chief whip Chris Heaton-Harris said: "Having heard that a formal complaint has been made to the ICGS, the PM has agreed with the chief whip that the whip should be suspended from Chris Pincher while the investigation is ongoing.
"We will not pre-judge that investigation. We urge colleagues and the media to respect that process."
Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen suggested Downing Street was guilty of "double standards" in its handling of Neil Parish and "arch-loyalist" Chris Pincher.
Asked if No 10's action had been sufficient, he told BBC Newsnight: "I don't think it is. I think for those who wish to maintain confidence in the Prime Minister or even regain it, it has been a particularly bad day.
"I text my whip and No 10 last night and said it was untenable for Chris Pincher to maintain the whip given the allegations by an MP, which were in a very similar circumstance to Neil Parish, I have a lot of sympathy with his remarks this evening that there seems to have been doubles standards.
"You have to ask the reasons behind that. Neil was a very independent-minded Conservative backbencher he never really sought patronage and he did hold ministers to account. Chris Pincher is seen as an arch-loyalist and I think that, to most people, will be the reason for the difference in their treatment. And that's not tenable either."
Tory MP Kelly Tolhurst will replace Mr Pincher as deputy chief whip, No 10 announced.
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said the Prime Minister was forced into suspending Chris Pincher as a Conservative MP.
"Boris Johnson has been dragged kicking and screaming into taking any action at all," she said.
"He just can't be trusted to do the right thing. This whole scandal is yet more evidence of his appalling judgement.
"It's time for Conservative MPs to show this chaotic Prime Minister the door before he can do any more damage."
Mr Pincher resigned from his post as deputy chief whip on Thursday evening.
In this resignation letter, he admitted to Boris Johnson he had "embarrassed myself and other people" by drinking "far too much" at the Carlton Club, the original home of the Tory party, the previous night.
Downing Street confirmed there had been an exchange of messages between Mr Johnson and Mr Pincher on Thursday evening but declined to say whether it was before or after Mr Pincher submitted his resignation.
A No 10 spokesman said: "The Prime Minister thinks it was right for him to have resigned and he has accepted his resignation.
"He believes that the behaviour was unacceptable, which is why he's accepted the resignation."
Scotland Yard said it had not received any reports of an incident at the club.
The Commons said the ICGS "operates on the basis of confidentiality for the benefit of all parties", adding: "Therefore, we cannot provide any information on any complaint, including whether or not a complaint has been received."
Mr Johnson spoke to several individuals on Friday, including a Tory MP who was with one of the men who was allegedly groped by Mr Pincher, a Downing Street source said.
"The account given was sufficiently disturbing to make the PM feel more troubled by all this," the source told the PA news agency.
The Prime Minister was said to have been waiting for a formal investigation to begin before suspending the whip, as opposition parties said Mr Pincher's position as an MP was untenable.
Mr Johnson was under pressure to explain why he gave Mr Pincher such a sensitive post amid reports that he had been advised not to do so.
The Tamworth MP was brought in alongside chief whip Chris Heaton-Harris, another trusted ally, to shore up support for the Prime Minister amid growing unrest among Tory MPs over the disclosures about lockdown parties in Downing Street.
Further claims were levelled against Mr Pincher, with the Times reporting a young Tory activist receiving an unwanted sexual advance last year.
The activist said the MP put his hand on his knee and told him he would "go far in the party" at a party conference event last year.
Mr Pincher's lawyers told the newspaper he firmly denies the allegation, which mirrors a complaint which led to the MP's resignation from the whips office for the first time.
In 2017 Mr Pincher quit the whips office after a complaint over an unwanted pass at the former Olympic rower and Conservative candidate Alex Story.
However he was reinstated two months later as a senior whip by Theresa May after having referred himself to both the police and the Conservative Party complaints procedure.
Asked whether Mr Johnson had been warned about his latest appointment, following spells at the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Housing, the No 10 spokesman said: "He was not aware of any specific allegations."
Downing Street appeared to acknowledge that there had been concerns when he was appointed to the key post of deputy chief whip, with responsibility for discipline over Tory MPs, in February.
However a No 10 spokesman said the Prime Minister had not been made aware of anything that would have prevented the appointment going ahead.
"In the absence of any formal complaints, it was not appropriate to stop an appointment on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations," the spokesman said.
On Friday disgraced former MP Neil Parish hit out at the government for not withdrawing the whip, telling LBC it was "the first thing they did to me" when he was caught watching porn in the House of Commons.
"I can't believe why that haven't done it because that was the first thing they did to me even though I asked for it to be sorted out privately," he said.
"And I just feel that it's double standards."
The only two women Tory MPs to chair Commons select committees, Caroline Nokes and Karen Bradley, had earlier called for a policy of "zero tolerance" for any such alleged conduct, with any MP facing such allegations having the Conservative whip withdrawn while they are investigated.
In a joint letter to the Prime Minister, they said: "The party and, by extension, the Government are at risk of serious reputational damage by the current approach.
"We urge you to act swiftly to introduce a code of conduct for all Conservative members of Parliament which is clear in terms of the expectations of behaviour and which can be applied in a fair, independent manner so as to avoid any suspicion of bias."
The latest disclosures come after the Conservative Party has been hit by a series of scandals relating to sexual misconduct.
In May, Mr Parish quit as MP for Tiverton and Honiton after admitting viewing pornography in the Commons chamber, while the previous month Wakefield MP Imran Ahmad Khan was jailed for 18 months for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy.
In both cases the Conservatives lost the ensuing by elections.
A third unnamed Conservative MP has been told by the whips to stay away from Parliament after he was arrested on suspicion of rape and other offences.