Leader of the Pack: The Mark Spencer Interview
9 min read
Westminster has once again found itself facing a reckoning over sexism, bullying and sleaze allegations. As Leader of the House of Commons, it falls to Mark Spencer to instigate a crackdown. He speaks to Noa Hoffman about where Westminster is failing the public and its own staff, what can be done to bring about change and his journey to Leader of the House. Photography by Baldo Sciacca
As a former chief whip, and now Leader of the House of Commons, Mark Spencer has seen the best and worst of Westminster.
On its good side, the inhabitants of SW1 have shaped Britain into the free and thriving democracy it is today – the envy of much of the world. However, its darker excesses mean the corridors of Parliament and Whitehall can be fertile ground for the powerful to prey on the vulnerable – sometimes with impunity.
This negative aspect of Westminster might be small compared to the vast amounts of good work done by most of those who work within it, but it has large and profoundly disturbing consequences. It is a side Spencer, who has served as the MP for Sherwood since 2010, is determined to stamp out.
Five years on from the “Pestminster” scandal, the Leader of the Commons speaks to The House magazine from his bright Whitehall office, where he relishes in a beautiful view of the Treasury’s vast central courtyard. The British political establishment has just faced another reckoning following weeks of media reports detailing allegations of sleaze, sexism and bullying.
Amid the turmoil, Neil Parish resigned as Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton after being caught by two female colleagues watching pornography in the Commons Chamber. The case came as Labour’s Liam Byrne was found to have bullied a member of staff, and Imran Ahmad Khan resigned as Conservative MP for Wakefield after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy in 2008 .
Meanwhile, Claudia Webbe’s appeal against her harassment conviction, which saw her lose the Labour whip, is due this month and David Warburton remains suspended from the Conservative Party over claims of sexual harassment and drug use. Across Westminster there have been cries for help.
“It’s not Parliament that is the problem, it’s people that are the problem,” Spencer says. “There clearly are, and have been, a small group of people who have been acting inappropriately and conducting themselves in a way which is not becoming of a Member of Parliament.”
The Commons Leader believes that in the past five years, a number of unsavoury individuals were able to become MPs due to the rushed announcements of the 2017 and 2019 general elections, and insists it’s not a Conservative-only phenonmenon.
“I don’t think having two rapid general elections in a row has helped parliamentary parties,” he says. “The Labour Party, Liberal Democrats, will all have selected candidates quite quickly, not realising a general election was coming,” he adds.
Spencer suggests voters will be able to choose from a higher calibre of candidates when they next take to the polls. “I think we’ll be in a much better place at the next general election, certainly in the (Conservative) Party as we will have taken much more time to scrutinise people. There will be a much longer process.
“We’re aiming at a 2024 election, everybody knows that. It gives political parties much longer to scrutinise their own candidates. Hopefully we will end up at the end of that with better MPs on all sides of the House.”
For now, those with misconduct complaints about current parliamentary passholders have the Independent Complaints and Grievances Scheme (ICGS) to turn to. The watchdog, which was established in the wake of the #MeToo movement, has investigated more than 100 cases relating to bullying, sexual misconduct and harassment since July 2018.
Recently, the service has come under scrutiny over whether it has sufficient speed and capacity to deal with complaints. Andrea Leadsom, who once held Spencer’s position and was instrumental in forming the watchdog, recently told The House she believes its investigations take too long , adding she was “grieved” her reforms had not “passed the test” of “fundamentally… [changing] the culture of Parliament for the better, so everyone would be treated with dignity and respect”.
Spencer disagrees and is confident the ICGS is fit for purpose. “Justice needs to be right,” he says. “It’s nice to have it rapid, but it’s more important to have it right.”
The Commons Leader describes justice as two-sided; on the one hand, victims need to be sure their complaints are investigated fully and thoroughly. On the other, those accused of wrongdoing must be confident they will receive a fair hearing with the option to appeal initial findings.
“I hear people say we need rapid turnaround with this stuff,” Spencer says. “I think getting it right is way more important. I know that’s frustrating, but it needs to have natural justice in the process.”
One idea being touted to help strip Westminster of sleaze and sexism has been to move employment responsibilities from MPs to an independent body. Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle floated the suggestion, which is strongly supported by the GMB Union representing staffers, in an op-ed for The Observer. The move would form part of a wider plan by Hoyle to consider “radical” reform to Parliament’s structures and processes.
Spencer is not convinced shifting employment responsibilities is necessarily the answer, but is open to the conversation.
“If I’m a member of staff in an office where my boss is abusing me, whether or not he’s paying my wages is not the issue here,” he says. “What actually is the issue is me being abused.
“It is not the golden bullet, but it is certainly something that can help with the conversation and help with moving in the right direction.”
With so much at stake, Spencer wants to ensure any change to parliamentary processes are effective and done correctly. Like most people, he was saddened listening to the experiences of sexism and harassment recited by MPs and staffers across the House in recent weeks. Fellow Cabinet minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan revealed she was once “pinned up against a wall” by a former MP who said she must “want him because he was a powerful man”. Conservative backbencher Alicia Kearns has described having journalists comment on her appearance, weight and voice rather than policies and work.
“I support them, and it makes me feel sad,” Spencer says of his female colleagues’ experiences. “We need to change the reality.”
It is the job of a chief whip to know everything they can about their party’s MPs. The good, the bad, the pretty and the ugly, what goes on in public, as well as behind closed doors. Yet despite spending more than two years as master keeper of Tory secrets, Spencer is still surprised by some of the behaviours exhibited by MPs.
“At no point in my life, as chief whip, did I ever think I would have to sit down with the parliamentary party and say, ‘Oh, by the way, you shouldn’t watch pornography in the House of Commons Chamber’,” he says, visibly still taken aback by Parish’s actions.
“That was not a thought that entered my head, that I had to communicate that message.”
For Spencer, Parliament should be – and for the most part is – so much bigger and better than that.
It is a place he never really aspired to as a child, growing up as the son of dairy farmers in Nottinghamshire, but was drawn to through his passion for agriculture and rural life.
As a young adult, Spencer got involved in agricultural politics, working his way up to become chairman of the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs (NFYFC). In this role, Spencer developed an enthusiasm for issues including rural transport, housing and succession planning in agriculture. At the age of 33, Spencer became a district councillor in Nottinghamshire before eventually being selected to stand for his Sherwood seat ahead of the 2010 general election.
Throughout his Westminster career, the MP has held a range of parliamentary positions, serving as a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the Backbench Business Committee and Selection Committee. He also spent time as parliamentary private secretary to then-secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs Liz Truss.
Spencer’s career in SW1 has not been devoid of criticism. Earlier this year the Conservative MP Nusrat Ghani claimed that, after she lost her job as a transport minister in 2020, Spencer told her that her Muslim faith had been raised as an issue during a Downing Street meeting. Spencer strongly denies the allegation, which he has labelled as “completely false” and “defamatory”.
He was moved from his post as chief whip to his current role as Commons Leader in February’s Cabinet reshuffle, and says he loves his new job just as much as the old one.
“I’m still at the centre of the whirlwind and the legislative programme, but I get to do more pro-democracy stuff,” Spencer goes on. “I go and get to meet school kids, and promote democracy in schools, and engage with people about the Palace of Westminster.”
He is particularly enthusiastic about his new responsibility to chair the Privy Council, which he describes as “the coolest thing in the world”.
Matters pertaining to the day-to-day business of the royal household, whether that be sanctioning a new coin or dealing with world charters, run through the Council.
“I put these questions to Her Majesty and she decides one way or the other, and that’s quite a cool thing to do,” Spencer says.
Like the Privy Council, the Commons Leader views the Westminster system and those who work within it with respect and admiration. He firmly believes British politics must not continue to be tarnished, and lives should not continue to be damaged, by the behaviour of those who abuse their power or take their political positions for granted.
“The way in which we change that culture is calling it out and exposing these people as a warning to those who will do wrong,” Spencer says.
He adds that people who have been wronged must be encouraged “to come forward to challenge it in the knowledge that we will support them”.
Critics would point to an absence of a concrete plan, other than urging victims and witnesses to speak up. Sleaze, harassment, bullying and sexism have long corroded public trust in Westminster politics. Five years on from “Pestminster,” with the problem back in the spotlight, many have questioned whether SW1 will ever be able to shed its darker side.
But Spencer is very clear. Change needs to happen, and he is determined to do what he can to facilitate it. Only at that point will Westminster and British democracy be able to shine, untainted and unblighted. As it should be.
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