SARAH VINE on the hysterical Westminster witch hunt

Halloween may be over, but the Westminster witch hunt is only just getting under way. 

On Monday, Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the House of Commons, told MPs she would be ‘setting the bar significantly below criminal activity’ when it came to eradicating ‘inappropriate behaviour’ by members.

She was speaking in response to allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct made against a number of unnamed MPs by a group of about half a dozen present and former parliamentary researchers in a so-called ‘dirty dossier’.

Andrea Leadsom told MPs she would be ‘setting the bar significantly below criminal activity’ when it came to eradicating ‘inappropriate behaviour’ by members

Andrea Leadsom told MPs she would be ‘setting the bar significantly below criminal activity’ when it came to eradicating ‘inappropriate behaviour’ by members

Allegations are rather vague and vary wildly, from being ‘handsy’ at parties to ‘impregnating’ a woman. Leadsom, by contrast, was unequivocal.

‘If people are made to feel uncomfortable, then that is not correct,’ she told the House. ‘In terms of the consequences for the perpetrators, I think I have also been perfectly clear: in the case of staff, they could forfeit their jobs; in the case of Members of Parliament, they could have the whip withdrawn and they could be fired from ministerial office.’

Watching her grim expression and hearing her speak, I was reminded of that line in Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible: ‘We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!’

Miller’s play was about the 17th-century witch trials in Massachusetts; but it was also, of course, about the anti-Communist hysteria that took place in America in the late Forties and early Fifties under U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, in which hundreds of people were falsely accused of unpatriotic behaviour.

In many cases the accusations turned out to be trivial or unsubstantiated — or simply made up by people bearing a grudge. The climate of fear it created resonates to this day, and the name of McCarthy will forever be associated with blind persecution of individuals in pursuit of political gain.

Ms Leadsom should be careful, then. She doesn’t want to end up being the McCarthy de nos jours. Because make no mistake: this so-called sex scandal has all the hallmarks of a moral panic.

Female staff at Westminster are naming and shaming sex pest MPs on a secret WhatsApp group, it has been revealed

Female staff at Westminster are naming and shaming sex pest MPs on a secret WhatsApp group, it has been revealed

This grab comes from the Conservative party dirty dossier, with names of MPs blacked out

This grab comes from the Conservative party dirty dossier, with names of MPs blacked out

‘The little crazy children’ are indeed jangling the keys to the kingdom — and how.

What started as a WhatsApp group of parliamentary employees swapping notes on their bosses has turned into a mob of aggrieved ‘victims’ claiming a million sexual micro-aggressions against a number of unnamed individuals who, it seems, are not even allowed to know where they are supposed to have overstepped the mark.

Words like ‘handsy’ and ‘inappropriate’ seem to make up the bulk of the accusations — terms that can mean almost anything but, in reality, prove nothing.

If someone is upset and an MP puts a reassuring arm around her shoulder, is that inappropriate? If they make a clumsy joke, is that an ‘unwanted advance’? Knowing MPs as I do, many of them are so socially inept, they make asking for a cup of coffee sound deeply suspicious. But just because someone is a bit odd, does that make them a pervert? No.

Or perhaps that depends on your point of view. Because there is a strong cultural and generational element to this, too. Most of the accused are over 40; most of the accusers are in their 20s.

In other words, it’s the revenge of the millennials, many of whom will have had their senses of humour surgically removed at university. Theirs is a generation that seems permanently aggrieved, in a perpetual state of disgust at anyone over the age of 30.

The sensible and sane way to deal with unwanted sexual advances is to adopt the Julia Hartley-Brewer model

The sensible and sane way to deal with unwanted sexual advances is to adopt the Julia Hartley-Brewer model

They can’t take a joke, let alone dictation — so is it any wonder they can’t handle the pace at Westminster or the rough and tumble of parliamentary banter. 

Anne Robinson put her finger on the button when she pointed out that in the Seventies, pioneering young feminists such as herself had a more robust attitude to men behaving badly than the ‘fragile’ women of today.

She faced a blizzard of angry snowflakes on Twitter, of course, deriding her for being a dinosaur; but she’s completely right.

The sensible and sane way to deal with unwanted sexual advances is to adopt the Julia Hartley-Brewer model in respect of having her knee importuned by then MP, now defence secretary, Michael Fallon: firmly decline — and threaten to punch his lights out if he does it again.

By the way, this incident took place 15 years ago — 15! — and Julia, now a radio broadcaster, has said until she’s blue in the face that she wasn’t ‘remotely distressed or upset’.

But the problem with the current generation of young women is that they have somehow got it into their heads that they don’t have to stick up for themselves, or take responsibility for their own safety. Feminism has taught them that they are entitled to equality and respect, even if they have done nothing to earn it.

Common sense and the intelligent rules of human behaviour have been replaced by a childish desire to push boundaries and a touchy, uppity tendency to take offence at the slightest thing. Thus you have women waving their around in public in so-called ‘free the nipple’ protests — and then complaining when men are caught ogling them.

‘Slut-walks’, in which girls dress as provocatively as they can before parading in public, are espoused as expressions of female empowerment, when actually they’re just banal and offensive.

Like that stupid ‘Metoo’ hashtag that started trending after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, these are not real expressions of emancipation: they are empty, attention-seeking gestures.

 The real test of feminism is whether, like Hartley-Brewer or Robinson, you can cut the mustard on a par with the men, and give as good — if not better — than you get

The real test of feminism is whether, like Hartley-Brewer or Robinson, you can cut the mustard on a par with the men, and give as good — if not better — than you get. Those two women have proved that they can. They should be held up as role models, not pilloried on social media.

But therein lies the real problem: social media. A place where those who can’t find success in the real world find safety in anonymity, and where mediocrity feeds the hunger of the mob to tear down those who dare to rise above the norm as a way of assuaging their own inadequacies.

George Orwell was almost right. It is not Big Brother who threatens our freedoms in the 21st century, but his nastier internet-age sibling, Little Brother: hundreds, thousands, millions of shrill individuals, one toxic groupthink, whipping each other into a self-righteous frenzy of hate before descending like locusts, stripping their victims to the bone and leaving destruction in their wake.

It is that collective hysteria, so common in closed, backward communities, that has begun to infect our society. Already it stifles free speech and debate in schools and universities, in print and in the

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