Could Harvey Weinstein be the man who stops Brexit?
The short answer is still: probably not. But the question isn’t as absurd as it might seem at first glance: the global wave of revulsion against sexual harassment in the workplace triggered by the allegations against Weinstein has now broken on the U.K. Houses of Parliament. When it recedes, the north bank of the Thames will be a sight to behold. The risk of Theresa May’s government collapsing as a result is non-negligible, and what will remain of her policies under a new government (including the all-important Brexit question) is far from clear.
Like Hollywood moguls, Members of Parliament have come to think over the years that the droits de seigneur over female staff go with the turf. There’s always been a flow of sex-related scandals out of Westminster, steady enough to leave the public inured to, and blasé about, their representatives’ behavior. A tabloid press that loved to rebel in lurid disclosures about MPs’ private lives has found it harder and harder to get mileage out of such scandals in an age of tolerance and permissiveness, where non-traditional lifestyles provoke nothing more than a shrug.
But the resignation Thursday of Michael Fallon, Secretary of State for Defense shows that the forces unleashed by Weinstein – channeling the pent-up outrage of women across the country over decades – have changed that game.
At the end of last week, a spreadsheet ostensibly compiled by female researchers employed by the ruling Conservative Party began to circulate on social media. It detailed allegations against 40 sitting MPs – over one in seven of the total, and a larger share of the male MPs – of sexual behaviors that are either aggressive, inappropriate or improper (or could be construed as such).
We can’t verify the claims, but they include some incidents that are already matters of public record and behaviors that are evidently consensual (if sometimes commercial). But they also include more sinister details such as “impregnated researcher and made her have an abortion.” It is shot through with phrases like “handsy in taxis” and “inappropriate with female researchers.” And it is a list that is evidently compiled ad hoc and most likely incomplete.
It’s striking that (according to The Times) Fallon resigned not because of what had leaked into the press, but because of what might still leak. It’s also striking that, while he resigned his ministerial position, he chose not to resign his seat in parliament. Nor has May asked him to. As one of his constituents (coincidentally The Times‘s defense editor) pointed out via Twitter, why should only the armed forces have the privilege of being represented by the morally upstanding?
Such partial retreats may not be available to dozens of other junior MPs who could face accusations from their past victims. Depending on the circumstances, seat resignations and even prosecutions may be called for.
And this is where we come back to Brexit. Even with the help of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, the Tories can only command a majority of two seats in the House of Commons. If junior MPs are forced into resigning their seats, then there will have to be by-elections to fill them, by-elections that could easily be lost. A resurgent Labour Party would never resist the urge to call a no-confidence vote the minute it thinks it could win one.
While the current Labour leadership is still paying lip service to Brexit, it is by no means as ideologically committed to the process as May’s Tories. And if it needed a deal with EU-friendly Scottish Nationalists or Liberal Democrats to form a government, then concessions on Brexit are an obvious concession to make. Labour’s top brass has already acknowledged it would face huge pressure from financial markets if Labour comes to power on its current manifesto, its most radically left-wing in 35 years. A promise to avoid a “hard” Brexit would be one of few options available for shoring up confidence. A promise of a second referendum on the final deal negotiated with the EU – a referendum that included the option of reversing Brexit entirely – would be another.
Admittedly, a lot of things have to fall into place for this scenario to materialize. And it’s not clear that allegations of sexual harassment will ultimately hurt the Tories more than their opponents (a Labour activist claimed at the weekend she had been raped by a party official at an event some years ago, and that neither the police nor the party had done anything about it.)
But what is true is that the forces released by the Weinstein allegations have taken on a life of their own, and that the Law of Unintended Consequences is asserting itself with a vengeance.