Today’s news media is full of stories about the casual misogyny and sexually predatory culture of the Palace of Westminster ( not just the Commons, though that features more often than the Lords ). This isn’t new. When I was writing Plague (Claret Press, 2020) I was taken to task by one of the readers of an early manuscript. She commented on my depiction of a male dominated, testosterone fuelled, hard drinking place, in which women MPs were treated as decorative, or routinely verbally abused and female civil servants and Parliamentary researchers ‘fair game’, saying it was incorrect to such a degree that no one would believe it in the twenty-first century. I begged to differ.
If you haven’t read Plague, be prepared for some spoilers, courtesy of the newspapers.
Of course, not all male, or female, MPs and Peers behave in such an ante-diluvian fashion, but there is a significant minority who do, as recently confirmed by the current, female, Attorney General, and witness the recent resignation of Neil Parish. The Palace is an unique and strange workplace, with MPs often far from home and under tremendous pressure, from their peers as well as the Whips. There is many an decent, family man (and they do tend to be men, but this isn’t exclusively male) in his constituency who lives a rather different life in Westminster. The ready availability of alcohol (or the stimulant of your choice) doesn’t help either. Catherine Bennett’s article in today’s Observer newspaper lists some examples from the Tory benches (see here).
Believe it or not, television in the chamber and the increasing number of women in Parliament has meant some improvement. Gone are the days when there was no debating cut-off time and the bars would be open (and full) until one or two in the morning, when MPs would spill out (sometimes quite literally) into the chamber to vote. It was a very tough woman who survived in that environment, though they have to be tough today too – witness the torrent of abuse poured on an MP like Diane Abbott. One of my villains is an MP who routinely regards women as prey and another a Lord who aids and abets him.
But back to Plague. We have been here before, when the media, or those parts of it more interested in fact than propaganda, reported on the scandals around PPE (and other) contracts handed, without competition, to cronies and the special ‘VIP lane’ of government procurement. There have been successful court cases branding the behaviour of the government unlawful.
The syphoning of money from the public purse into the pockets of cronies and allies via large government contracts is one constituent part of my villain’s modus operandi. My publishers even made a podcast programme about it COVID, Corruption and Crony Capitalism, which is still available, because the parallels were so obvious. Said villain has made a fortune in the City, he talks about the power of money and the super wealthy using the City to launder ill-gotten gains and buy up property. One of his international associates is a Russian oligarch in London.
Thus far the only other major element in the crime plot of Plague which hasn’t made the headlines is the murders (no one would want that to be real). Nonetheless, it’s worth reflecting on my heroine’s view of the Palace of Westminster when considering this weekend’s stories. I suspect there’s more to come.
‘Whitehall lay in front of them. At its far end, she saw the Palace of Westminster. The Elizabeth Tower was still shrouded in scaffolding, obscuring the clock face. Green netting was wound around the west face of St Stephen’s Porch. What else enmeshed the Palace and those within it? Had the corruption already taken hold, bringing its odour as surely as the subterranean Tyburn, flowing beneath it, brought the stench of putrefaction?‘