Britain’s parliamentary term ends in acrimony and scandal

·4 min read

LONDON (AP) — British lawmakers headed back to their constituencies across the country Thursday at the end of a parliamentary year overshadowed by scandal.

They left a Parliament where one lawmaker stands accused of watching porn in the House of Commons, another has been found guilty of bullying, and Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in peril for breaching the lockdown rules he imposed on the nation during the coronavirus pandemic.

Parliament was formally suspended, or prorogued, on Thursday in a tradition-steeped ceremony involving ermine-draped members of the House of Lords and an official proclaiming “the queen wills it” in Norman French. A new session will begin May 10 with a pomp-filled State Opening of Parliament and a new slate of legislation from the Conservative government.

Johnson hopes the new term will mark a fresh start after months of turmoil in which he became the first prime minister to be sanctioned for breaking the law in office. He was fined 50 pounds ($62) by police for attending his own surprise birthday party in June 2020 when lockdown rules barred social gatherings.

Johnson has apologized, but denies knowingly breaking the rules. He faces the possibility of more fines over other parties — police are investigating a dozen gatherings — and a parliamentary investigation into whether he misled lawmakers about his behavior.

He also faces discontent within his own party, which could grow after local elections across the country on May 5. The Conservatives fear a backlash from voters amid soaring food and energy prices driven by the war in Ukraine, Brexit and the disruption from the coronavirus pandemic. A bad result for the governing party could lead Conservatives to try to replace Johnson with a less tarnished leader.

The “partygate” scandal has shaken the prime minister’s grip on power, but troubles for Britain’s politicians extend beyond Johnson. Thursday’s headlines were brimming with misconduct allegations, including a Conservative lawmaker accused by female colleagues of watching pornography on his phone in the House of Commons chamber. Parliamentary officials are investigating the claim. The lawmaker has not been named.

Home Office Minister Rachel Maclean said the alleged behavior was “deeply sickening and disgusting.”

“Action needs to be taken and I very much hope … we will see him out of Parliament, out of the party,” she said.

Earlier this week, female lawmakers reacted with outrage after a newspaper quoted an unnamed Conservative legislator who accused Labour Party Deputy Leader Angela Rayner of trying to “distract” the prime minister during debates by crossing and uncrossing her legs.

The prime minister condemned the comments as “sexist, misogynist tripe.”

Also Thursday, opposition Labour Party lawmaker Liam Byrne was handed a two-day suspension from the House of Commons for bullying a member of his staff.

The constant drip of allegations has taken a toll on politicians’ morale, and on their already tarnished public image. Long known for its boozy, macho atmosphere, Parliament is now a more diverse place, but lawmakers and staff still say bullying, harassment and inappropriate behavior are rife under a system that largely allows legislators to regulate themselves.

Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said there was a problem with “the overall culture of the House of Commons.”

“It is late sitting, long nights with bars, and that very often leads, and it has done for decades, to behavioral challenges,” he told Sky News.

Johnson's critics say problems are worsening under a prime minister who has faced a series of scandals over his finances and judgment. The scandals are an unwelcome distraction for a government that wants to focus on easing the cost-of-living crisis and revamping Britain’s economy in the wake of the country’s departure from the European Union.

But some bills announced when the last session of Parliament began in May 2021 have been delayed or abandoned. Others — including new powers for police to curtail noisy protests and a requirement to show photo ID before voting — faced stiff opposition but were pushed through Parliament after bruising debates because of the Conservatives’ large majority.

As Parliament shut down on Thursday, House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle sent lawmakers on their way with thanks for the session just ending.

“Let’s hope it’s a little calmer in the next one,” he said.

Jill Lawless, The Associated Press

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