Boris Johnson did not know “specific claims” about Chris Pincher before appointing him deputy chief whip, a cabinet minister has argued despite numerous sexual misconduct allegations.
Therese Coffey battled to defend the UK prime minister on Sunday over his decision to give the MP, who has been stripped of the Conservative whip, a key ministerial role.
Former No 10 adviser Dominic Cummings alleged that Mr Johnson had referred to the MP as “Pincher by name, pincher by nature” long before appointing him in February.
The MP for Tamworth in Staffordshire quit as Tory deputy chief whip after he was accused of drunkenly groping two men at a private members’ club in London this week.
The prime minister only bowed to pressure to remove the whip from his ally, meaning he is now sitting in the Commons as an independent, after an official investigation was launched.
Mr Pincher had already quit the whips’ office in 2017 after a complaint that he had made an unwanted pass at former Olympic rower and Conservative candidate Alex Story.
At the time a young Tory activist, Mr Story alleged that year that the MP untucked the back of his shirt, massaged his neck and whispered “You’ll go far in the Tory Party”.
Ms Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, was dispatched to defend the prime minister over what he knew and when.
“I am aware that the prime minister was not aware of specific claims that had been made,” she told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday.
“I don’t believe he was aware, that’s what I’ve been told today.”
She said she is not “part of the general chatter, rumour mill discussions” and was unaware of concerns about Mr Pincher, but added: “I don’t believe he’s been in a long-term relationship.”
Ms Coffey said “the leadership qualities of the prime minister are very evident” when questioned about Mr Johnson setting the standards amid numerous Tory sleaze scandals.
She said she could only be sure “to the best of my knowledge” that Mr Johnson was not aware of specific allegations about Mr Pincher, conceding she had not spoken to the Prime Minister on Sunday.
The minister told the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme that she had received assurances from “somebody from the No 10 press office”.
She said she had not been aware of claims that MP Craig Whittaker resigned from the whips office over concerns about Mr Pincher’s behaviour until she read them in the Sunday Telegraph.
Fresh allegations emerged as Mr Pincher said he is seeking “professional medical support” and hopes to return to represent his constituents “as soon as possible”.
The Mail on Sunday alleged he threatened to report a parliamentary researcher to her boss after she tried to stop his “lecherous” advances to a young man at a Conservative Party conference.
The Sunday Times alleged he made unwanted passes at two Conservative MPs in 2017 and 2018 – after his first resignation as a whip.
A Tory MP told the Independent he was groped on two occasions by Mr Pincher, first in December 2021 and again last month.
Shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds said elements of Ms Coffey’s defence were “desperate”.
“It’s clear from what we know this morning that Chris Pincher should never have been put back into the whips’ office,” the Labour MP told Ridge.
One of the latest accusers said he was “shell-shocked” by the decision not to immediately kick Mr Pincher out of the parliamentary party.
He told the Sunday Times he initially did not want to report the incident at the exclusive Carlton Club on Wednesday, thinking “This is something that happens in Westminster”.
“But I am angered by the fact that I should feel like that, and even more angry by the way No 10 have dealt with it … I am furious. I know it sounds really silly but I felt shell-shocked when I found out they were initially going to let him keep the whip,” he said.
Mr Pincher did not respond to requests for comment on the latest allegations, but the newspapers behind them said he denied the claims.
The latest allegations came after the Conservative Party was hit by a series of scandals relating to sexual misconduct.
In May, Neil Parish quit as MP for Tiverton and Honiton after admitting viewing pornography in the Commons chamber.
A month earlier, then-Wakefield MP Imran Ahmad Khan was jailed for 18 months for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy.
In both cases, the Conservatives lost the ensuing by-elections.
A third unnamed Tory MP has been told by whips to stay away from Parliament after being arrested on suspicion of rape and other offences.
In a statement, Mr Pincher said he would “co-operate fully” with the investigation by Parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme.
“As I told the prime minister, I drank far too much on Wednesday night, embarrassing myself and others, and I am truly sorry for the upset I caused,” he continued.
“The stresses of the last few days, coming on top of those over the last several months, have made me accept that I will benefit from professional medical support.
“I am in the process of seeking that now, and I hope to be able to return to my constituency duties as soon as possible.” — PA