Published: 10:30, 16 September 2021
| Updated: 14:55, 16 September 2021
The conviction of the former Dover MP Charlie Elphicke for sexual assault destroyed his reputation and left his career and personal life in tatters. But for his victims there was retribution as he received a two-year jail sentence after a jury accepted their account of what happened. Political editor Paul Francis charts his decline.
When the former Conservative MP for Dover Charlie Elphicke announced he was to stand aside in 2019 as the candidate for the constituency he had represented since 2010, he did so with a familiar defiant refrain.
It was a decision, he said, that would allow him to continue his fight to clear his name over allegations of sexual assault. But while his local association continued to back him to the hilt, it was clear he had stood aside reluctantly; right up to the deadline for candidates to register to stand, there had been speculation that he would run as an independent.
That would have been a way of circumventing party rules that stop MPs from contesting elections if they have had the Whip removed - as was the case.
But he eventually seemed reconciled to - or was persuaded that while it would be possible to continue as a candidate, doing so under the cloud of allegations would not be advisable nor helpful to the party.
In a gushing press release issued by his local association praising him as the best MP Dover had ever had, he explained: “I am standing down today with huge regret, because it seems that we no longer abide by the basic British value of an individual being deemed innocent unless and until proven otherwise in a fair trial.”
That vow to clear his name ended calamitously when he was convicted by a jury of three counts of sexual assault against two women. The jury accepted the often painful accounts of his victims rather than his denials that what happened was consensual.
During his trial, it emerged that allegations about the ex-MP's behaviour were first brought to the attention of party whips in late 2016, when a former member of staff reported how she had been assaulted. The party’s deputy chief whip had advised her to go to the police but she declined to do so.
In November 2017, however, the claims became public for the first time after the party said it was suspending Mr Elphicke over “serious allegations” that had been referred to the police by a second complainant. For his part, the then MP again denied any wrong-doing and complained that the Press had been tipped off about his suspension before him.
There followed a period during which the claims were investigated and with no outcome, the Conservative party decided to restore the whip to Elphicke in 2018, a decision widely derided as it was conveniently done ahead of yet another crucial vote on Brexit.
Then in July 2019, there was a turning point in the saga: police charged the MP with three counts of sexual assault. Again, he denied any wrong-doing. By the time of the snap general election in 2019, the trial date had not been fixed.
It placed the party in a conundrum: if it permitted Elphicke to run as a candidate, the likelihood was that he would win.
There was then a risk that in the event of a trial and conviction, the party would face a potentially tricky - not to say embarrassing - by-election.
Local party chiefs come up with a solution: it endorsed his wife Natalie Elphicke in his place.
In a closed meeting, party activists voted to adopt his wife as the prospective candidate - a unanimous endorsement, according to the local association.
It raised a few eyebrows and appeared to have headed off the prospect of national party chiefs imposing a candidate; there were claims that it could leave the way open for the ex-MP to be restored had he cleared his name.
The subsequent trial last year showed a different side to the MP as the jury heard lurid and distressing evidence about how he had chased one of his victims around a room after groping her shouting “I’m a naughty Tory.”
The sister of one of his victims told the trial that it had been like a Benny Hill sketch.
The jury found the ex-MP guilty on three counts and in jailing him for two years, trial judge Mrs Justice Wipple said: “You’re a sexual predator who used your success and respectability as a cover.”
In a statement immediately after the trial, Natalie Dawson, CPS Specialist Prosecutor, said the assaults had a profound impact on the two women.
“Charles Elphicke abused his power and influence over these women to make unwanted and forceful sexual advances towards them. Elphicke has lied repeatedly about his conduct and failed to take responsibility for his behaviour and the harm suffered by his victims.”
There followed another twist with the ex-MP appealing against the length of his sentence - with the support of his wife, who after his conviction immediately announced she was to divorce “the only man she had ever loved.” That appeal failed in March last year.
Lady Justice Carr, who heard the appeal, said Elphicke had been "prepared to repeatedly exploit his position of power and trust in order to pursue his sexual desires".
In an emphatic ruling, she added: "He preyed on those in a weaker position than himself, using his success and respectability as a cover.”
Despite being separated, his early release from prison is reported to have been contingent on Mrs Elphicke’s agreement that he can return to their marital home in Deal.
As to his long-term future, it is unlikely to be in or even near politics.
Disgraced as an MP; a divorce looming and estranged from his family have left his reputation in tatters.
The future for staff
The trial vividly underlined the difficulties facing staff who wanted to report and make formal complaints about MPs they worked for.
The system’s shortcomings had already been highlighted in a review commissioned by the government, which said changes were needed.
The government established the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme in 2018, which strengthened a code of conduct and gave parliamentary staff a way to register complaints about harassment, including sexual harassment, and bullying.
The scheme included a Code of Conduct for MPs, setting out an expectation that they observe the principles of the code and added a new rule: “A member must treat their staff and all those visiting or working for or with Parliament with dignity, courtesy and respect”.
'MPs continued to "behave in ways which are not acceptable and fall far short of what we should expect from our elected representatives"...'
Decisions on complaints are now determined by independent panels rather than MPs. A further report published in 2019 suggested that the issue had not gone away.
That report by lawyer Gemma White said the behaviour of some MPs had "seriously affected the health and welfare of far too many people".
It also found a minority of MPs continued to "behave in ways which are not acceptable and fall far short of what we should expect from our elected representatives".
The report said the most common form of offending behaviour was shouting at, demeaning, belittling and humiliating staff, often in public.
But it said sexual harassment was also a problem, with staff being subject to unwanted advances.
The report said there was an unacceptable level of sexual "banter" in the Commons, alongside "unwelcome discussion of intimate sexual details".
"While the House of Commons is not alone in tolerating these behaviours, it is the home of our policy makers and a taxpayer-funded institution. It should therefore be at the forefront of good employment practice.”
Charlie Elphicke joins a group of former MPs brought to court to account for transgressions. Among the most-well known was the former South Thanet MP Jonathan Aitken, who was jailed for perjury after he challenged media allegations about his business affairs with leading Saudis.
In a now infamous quote, he declared: “If it falls to me to start a fight to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play, so be it. I am ready for the fight.”
However, his attempt to sue The Guardian and the BBC for libel fell apart when it emerged that he had lied about who had paid for a stay at The Ritz hotel in Paris. He was jailed for 18 months for perjury in 1999.
After release, he found God and was ordained in the Church of England as a deacon in 2018 and a year later was ordained as an Anglican priest by the Bishop of London.
Former Labour MEP Peter Skinner, from Maidstone, ended up in prison after being found guilty of an expenses fraud in 2016. He was sentenced to four years after claiming thousands of pounds for support staff, which actually funded jewellery, restaurants and staying in hotels.
Skinner, MEP from 1999 until 2014, also made fraudulent payments of £10,000 a month to his wife from December 2007 until July 2009.
In total, he took £100,000 in expenses for his own use.