This one goes out to all the male MPs I’ve taken to lunch. I want to apologise to each and every one of you. Some of you know who you are and what went on. Some of you were so tipsy you may not have been fully aware of how shockingly you were being exploited.
I estimate there are dozens, if not hundreds, of you whom I’ve taken to lunch, dinner and drinks during my time as a political correspondent.
In dark bars and expensive restaurants, or just casually in Commons corridors, I’ve sidled up to you in a designer outfit and pretty much said ‘Howdy, right honourable!’
Look, it was a long time ago and I’m practically an old lady now, in media years. I’ve no need to keep up the pretence that I was a blameless naïf in my 20s and 30s when I was an ambitious young lobby hack. I want to make my confession. I want to explain why I did it.
I took advantage of men to get ahead, and because I enjoyed it. And yes, Michael Fallon was one of them.
He and I used to book our party conference dinners months in advance. I looked forward to them as a highlight because I knew the gossip would be flowing as freely as the wine. I would book the best place in town, turn up in a smart outfit and grab hold of Mr Fallon on arrival, covering him in mwah mwahs.
I don’t remember him overstepping the mark, but I’m pretty sure, as the conversation ploughed ever more satisfyingly into the more intriguing business matters of the Tory Party… yes, I’m fairly sure that at some point, or more than one point, I ever so slightly gave him the come-on.
Oh dear, where did it all go wrong? When did I turn into this predatory monster? Well, I suppose it was a dream come true to become a lobby correspondent, one of the first female political hacks when I started work at Westminster back in the early Noughties.
It wasn’t long before I began to take MPs and ministers out to lunch, as all lobby hacks do. I remember one Budget day, I entertained a junior minister who leaned across the table and said: ‘Does power turn you on? Is that why you came into politics? Is it a sexual thing with you?’ I confess I said: ‘Yes, that’s right.’ And he leaked a controversial government policy, which made the front page.
Then there was the poor MP who shut himself up in a cupboard with me. I went to lunch with him because a friend said he was single and looking for a wife. I admit it, I thought, if he’s feeling romantic, I’ll get even better gossip out of him.
When he showed me the cupboard where the suffragette hid I thought I might have got myself in a jam, but I managed to squeeze past him and get out. I’ve since found out he showed that cupboard to all the female hacks. I feel cheated.
Look, what I’m saying is, women are not always passive victims. I certainly wasn’t. I enjoyed the charged atmosphere of politics. I thrived on it as well as the men did; more than some of them maybe.
I won’t make excuses for real assault or harassment but I’m not comfortable with the current narrative which casts all women as helpless. This is setting our cause back light years.
Take me and Mr Fallon. Let me spell it out. As he was an MP and I was a journalist, he knew things I didn’t and I knew things he didn’t. Between us, we had more pieces of the puzzle than we had alone. To people who trade in information, that is a very exciting proposition. Quid pro quo Clarice. Only the way I remember it, I was the Hannibal Lecter of the piece.
I remember one year at Tory conference I spent an entire evening gnawing Mr Fallon’s ear off about some career problems I was having. He was the perfect gentleman, saying all the right things. I’m sorry I did that now, because according to the current analysis, telling him my personal story late at night was manipulative, a form of harassment.
Michael Fallon, for all the times I may have touched your knee while drunk, I’m sorry.
Did I go further with others? Oh dear, I think I did. I was young and insecure, chippy, worried about making my mark. And I was still thinking that some day my prince would come. So I kissed a few frogs at Westminster, thinking maybe, just maybe, I’d marry an MP. It was my workplace, after all, and your workplace is where you meet people. I, like the MPs, spent long hours at Westminster, barely having a life anywhere else.
I think a few fell for me. An elderly peer, now deceased, wrote me a long love letter in green ink. He was a dear man, and lonely. There were a lot of bored men trapped in London with nothing to do in the evening. I was glad to cheer them up with a flirty dinner, if they were happy to leak some information of public interest, which they usually were.
I like to think I was a good host. The worst insult I can imagine is they found me dull. I don’t ever remember feeling exploited. But it strikes me now that these men might. After all, I cosied up to them, batted my eyelids, wore the right outfit.
‘Wear the black dress,’ one chap would say to me before lunch. And sometimes, if I was feeling generous, I wore it. If he had put his hands on me, I would have sent him home to his wife limping. But he didn’t. He behaved just fine.
One MP asked me to marry him and I turned him down. There was a peer I chased relentlessly, having fallen hopelessly in love. He turned me down. But that is another story.
There can be no excuse for genuine harassment and abuse. But flirting? Flirting makes the world go round. Well, it made my world go round anyway.
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