1st October 2019

This week Charlotte Edwardes made allegations against the Prime Minister about an incident which is alleged to have happened twenty years ago. Far from being what Matt Hancock dismissed as a “private matter”, this is very much a public interest issue for which the PM should be held accountable. Sexual harassment is about the abuse of power and he now holds the most powerful office in the land.

It is important to note that these are claims which he flatly denies. In the past, a straight denial would have been enough to deal with it and move on. But #MeToo has changed all that. It is a much bigger story than it would have otherwise been, because of the new normal – sexual harassment is something to be called out and challenged, not to be privately tolerated.

In October it will be 2 years since the outpouring of stories of sexual harassment experiences shared as part of the #MeToo movement. Evidence suggests that this movement really has had an impact. A survey that the Fawcett Society published last year found that over half of people said that as a result of #MeToo what is thought of as acceptable has changed. The biggest change in attitudes was in young people (18-34) with over half of them saying they were now more likely to speak up against sexual harassment, including 58% of young men. Over and over again, powerful, high profile men (eg Harvey Weinstein, Placido Domingo) have been confronted by multiple accusations from women who in the past would have and did stay silent. Entire workplaces (Lloyds of London, the House of Parliament) have been tainted by a culture which normalises sexually predatory behaviour. The unwritten code that this is just the way it is, something which we just have to tolerate, has been rewritten.

Boris Johnson’s denial doesn’t ring true because the woman is the credible one here. Let us consider what happens to women in this situation. The eye of the media storm is upon them. They will be vilified and accused of lying. They will be ostracised by some, and may find their careers damaged. They will be targeted with abuse and possibly threats. Why would they invite that upon themselves for the sake of a lie? In this case, there is also the additional consideration that his former boss, Max Hastings, someone who knows him well, suggests that Johnson would not recognise truth, whether about his private or political life, if confronted by it in an identity parade. We can also see this in action where, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the PM has insisted that he had no interest to declare in the Jennifer Arcuri case, where she undoubtedly was a friend of his and, at the same time, her company clearly did benefit from access to business delegations and public money during his time at City Hall. The allegation is that this may have been facilitated by the PM himself. Whether this is true or not, the need to declare an interest in

circumstances such as these is pretty basic stuff. But no, apparently, insisting that night is day is all that is needed here by way of explanation. The (fortuitous) irony is that the Government is currently consulting on strengthening the law on sexual harassment, to introduce a new duty on employers to prevent it and to protect women from clients, customers and co-workers. So those roving hands beneath the table become their boss’ problem. Am sure the PM will say he is completely behind the new legislation. And I’m sure we can all take his word for it. Can’t we?


Sam Smethers, CE of FawcettSam is the Chief Executive of The Fawcett Society.

The Fawcett Society has long campaigned for the Government to strengthen sexual harassment laws.

The Government is consulting on how to strengthen the laws on sexual harassment at work & whether employers should have legal responsibility to prevent harassment at work.

Use this as an opportunity to make your voices heard. 

Read our response to the Government's consultation on sexual harassment here.