Minister dodges questions over disgraced whip

Minister says PM cannot ‘act on gossip’ as Pincher scandal continues

This morning a minister has defended Boris Johnson’s appointment of disgraced MP Chris Pincher as deputy chief whip back in February.

Pincher announced his resignation from the role last Thursday evening with a letter that began: “Dear prime minister, last night I drank far too much. I’ve embarrassed myself and other people which is the last thing I want to do and I apologize to those concerned.”

The Sun reported that the Tamworth MP allegedly groped two guests at the Carlton Club the previous night.

Pincher has denied the claims.

Children and families minister Will Quince said earlier today that the prime minister could not have “act[ed] on rumour or gossip” when it comes to government appointments.

His remarks come after reports that Boris Johnson was aware of the Pincher’s reputation for being “handsy” and even allegedly referred to him as “Pincher by name, Pincher by nature”.

In 2017 Pincher was accused of sexual misconduct by Labour MP Tom Blenkinsop and former Team GB rower Alex Story. He subsequently resigned as assistant whip. Two months after stepping down from this role, Theresa May appointed him as deputy chief whip.

“These cases are hard because like any professional organisation you can’t act on rumour or gossip and in Westminster there is a lot of rumour or gossip,” Quince argued, adding: “it [gossip] is something I try to sort of stay clear of but it is why it is also so important that where people do witness something which is clearly falling well below the standard of behaviour we should rightly expect from members of Parliament and those who work on the parliamentary estate that it is reported.”

He said that the party “encourage[d] everybody to come forward and whether that is the police or the parliamentary authorities so action can be taken,” referring to how the chief whip and the prime minister withdrew the whip from Pincher on Friday afternoon.

This weekend’s papers published a slew of fresh sexual misconduct allegations against Pincher, spanning back a decade.

On this morning’s media round Quince echoed the line given by work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey’s yesterday, that No 10 was unaware of any “specific allegations” that ought to have ruled out Pincher for the whip role earlier this year.

Quince stressed he had been given “categorical assurance” from Downing Street that this was the case.

However he later told LBC Radio that he did not “know exactly what the prime minister was and wasn’t aware of.”

At this afternoon’s media briefing, the prime minister’s spokesperson admitted that Johnson “was aware of some reports and some allegations” about Pincher ahead of his appointment in February.

However No 10 said the allegations had not been perceived as a barrier to Pincher’s reshuffle from his position as housing minister, as the claims had either been resolved, or no action had been taken.

Quizzed over why Johnson promoted Pincher back in February, Quince told Sky News this morning that “These cases are hard because like any professional organisation you can’t act on rumour or gossip and in Westminster there is a lot of rumour or gossip.”

Quince himself has rarely appeared on the morning media round in previous months, and the decision to send him on the airwaves could be a sign that senior ministers are reluctant to defend No 10 over the ongoing scandal.

However Quince claims he was scheduled to take this morning’s interviews “five days ago” to discuss the government’s new childcare plans.

“I am certainly not going to defend the former deputy chief whip. The allegations are incredibly serious and I am appalled by them,” he went on.