The Presidents Club Charity Dinner, a men-only black-tie event, has been held for 33 years. It is just one of the many dinners held in the bedazzling ballrooms of West London’s hotel district, a black cab ride away from the heart of Britain’s political world, Westminster, and the glass towers of its financial one, the City. Attendees include fund managers and property developers, politicians, and international businessmen. They could look forward to a night of burlesque entertainment, free-flowing wine, and young, beautiful “hostesses” on hand to attend to their every need.
This year, though, was different, because mingling with the guests were undercover Financial Times reporters. The resulting article alleged a night of debauchery, where young women hired as hostesses were told to wear skimpy dresses and matching underwear. The diners reportedly bid for items such as a course of plastic surgery entitled “Add spice to your wife” and strip-club nights, as well as access to senior politicians, including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (he is said to have been unaware he was being auctioned off). Despite guests being warned to respect the hostesses, the FT claimed, some felt entitled enough to pull them into their laps.
(The Presidents Club said in response to the report that it condemned such behavior and would investigate the allegations; the Guardian later reported that it would close down.)
The article caused shockwaves in a country still absorbing the #MeToo movement. The scandals began in the fall of 2017, shortly after the Harvey Weinstein allegations broke. At first, for a British public used to following Hollywood gossip, it was simply the latest episode in a distant, almost mythical world. Then in October, Kevin Spacey, who as the former artistic director of the Old Vic was as much a fixture in Britain’s acting community as America’s, was forced to address allegations about his behavior toward a younger actor in the 1980s, and a scandal with a backdrop of palm trees and boulevards suddenly landed on the drizzly gray British streets.
While London’s theater world plunged into psychodrama, the #MeToo movement, which had winged its way across the Atlantic, was gathering pace. In a country used to playing down emotions, every pub conversation was about the trauma of sexual harassment. As in the United States, some women felt unsure about joining in, either because they felt their experience was not comparable to those they were reading, or because they felt it was not the role of the victim to out themselves. Few at the time could have predicted that it would bring down two of the most powerful men in the country before Christmas.
“Pestminster,” as the sexual harrassment scandal at the British Parliament at Westminster was dubbed—“sex pest” being the British media’s all-inclusive term for harassers—illustrated the tension between listening to victims and the Machiavellian instincts of those who trade in power. It began with a list of names circulated on social media. Like the world of showbiz, Britain’s political sphere runs on connections, and the quickest route into politics is to work for a member of Parliament. Such jobs are not only poorly paid, but can be nasty, brutish, and short. (In 2015, all but one of Scotland’s 41 Labour MPs lost their seats, taking their back-room staff with them.) Consequently, the staircases of Westminster are filled with older wealthier politicians and the younger, poorer employees relying on their patronage. Not only this, but the clannish nature of British political parties, and the unpredictable election results in recent years, has created an instinct to avoid scandal “for the good of the party.”
The list shattered this silence. Organized neatly in a spreadsheet, it comprised the names of MPs in the ruling Conservative Party and their alleged wrongdoings, which ranged from being “handsy with women at parties” to supposedly having “paid a woman to be quiet.” From the start, it was controversial. The casual way that allegations of assault were lumped together with consensual affairs suggested that some of those involved in compiling were more interested in blackmail than listening to victims. Some staffers were horrified to discover themselves listed as victims when they had never made accusations nor consented to their inclusion.
Some allegations disintegrated quickly, but others stuck. The scandal spread from the conservatives to the center-left Labour Party, with a party activist revealing that she had been raped by an unnamed fellow activist. Two Labour MPs remain under investigation for separate allegations. On Oct. 31, the defense secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, admitted to putting his hand on a female journalist’s knee 15 years previously.
The journalist in question, Julia Hartley-Brewer, said she considered the matter closed. But Fallon resigned the following day, acknowledging his behavior had “fallen below the high standards that we require of the armed forces.” May, it seemed, had heard enough to believe he had to go. Other allegations of similar behavior by Fallon later emerged.
Meanwhile, an article appeared in the Times by the politics and culture writer Kate Maltby, describing an encounter with Damian Green, one of the highest-ranking ministers in Prime Minister Theresa May’s Cabinet, who was also a friend of Maltby’s parents, her father being a West London banker who went to Oxford with other prominent Conservatives. Maltby described texts she had received from Green, as well as meeting him for a drink and feeling “a fleeting hand against my knee.” She wrote: “Let me be clear. This is not the most terrible thing that has ever happened to a woman.” Green, she said, probably was unaware of how embarrassed she felt.
Maltby’s article focused on the imbalance of power between a younger female journalist and a man with access to No. 10 Downing St. But this point was quickly lost in the furor. Green refuted the suggestion that he had made sexual advances. Immediately after Maltby’s article, the Daily Mail ran a hatchet job on her: “One very pushy lady.” Quoting unnamed sources, the article depicted her as an overly privileged self-promoter who had placed her ambition before her parents.
Maltby’s article had not called for Green to resign, and the Daily Mail counterattack suggested that he didn’t intend to, either. Moreover, it didn’t seem like May could afford to let him go. May has a track record of supporting women in the Conservative Party. But after a botched snap election earlier in 2017, she was badly weakened. By the winter of 2017, there were just a few senior Conservatives that she could rely on, and Green, an old friend from her Oxford days, was one of them.
Politics, it seemed, would trump #MeToo. At least, that was the case until December, when a policeman came forward to claim that in 2008, during a separate investigation about parliamentary leaking, police had discovered porn on Green’s office computer. Green denied the suggestions. “I didn’t download or look at pornography on my computer,” he told the Guardian.
Yet after an investigation in late December, Green was forced to resign. He continues to deny the allegation but acknowledges his public statements could have been “clearer.” Maltby’s parents finally broke their silence over their daughter to say “we are proud of her.”
For enemies of the embattled prime minister, Green’s resignation was a moment of cheer. Ironically, Pestminster has further damaged the country’s second-ever female PM after Margaret Thatcher, but has been a boon for her chief rival, Boris Johnson, who had up until then been facing criticism after a series of foreign policy gaffes. Despite having had a string of affairs and allegations of sexism, Johnson has emerged from the scandal remarkably unscathed. For victims of sexual harassment, though, the outcome was less clear. By 2018, the backlash against #MeToo had begun. Allies of Green and Fallon questioned whether a hand on a knee should end a politician’s career.
Into all of this sailed the Presidents Club. Attended by figures from business, politics, and finance, the men-only black-tie evening had been running for 33 years, and its stated purpose was to raise money for charity.
For some in the British #MeToo movement, the fact such an outrageous event could happen simply confirms the iron grip of the patriarchy. All-male enclaves still exist in Britain—in 2015, the exclusive gentlemen’s club The Garrick voted to continue to exclude women from membership, while Scotland’s Muirfield golf club only reversed its ban on women in 2017 after losing the right to host the Open championship.
But from another perspective, the fact that the Financial Times decided to invest resources into a story like this is a sign of progress. As a young financial journalist working shortly after the 2008 crash, I was regaled with stories of strippers at trade shows, and yet none of the journalists telling them felt inclined to write it down. Traditionally, the most gung-ho papers in the U.K., the tabloids, have preferred to focus on allegations that bring disgrace to a public figure, rather than the experience of the victims themselves.
After the FT article was published, the men named as attendees spent the day distancing themselves. A spokesman for the prime minister noted dryly that “The PM was uncomfortable at the reports she read this morning, I say reports because clearly this is an event to which she would not be invited.”
The Presidents Club may be the most colorful of the revelations that emerge about the sleazy underbelly of the establishment in 2018, but it will not be the last. Still, the storm that #MeToo brought to Britain makes it just that little bit less likely they will happen again.