Damian Green probably has no idea how awkward I felt

written for The Times, 1 November 2017

Westminster is an unpleasant place this week. After the Weinstein scandal we are asking new questions about the sexual abuse of power: all to the good. But for women who work in SW1, especially those of us who are outspoken feminists, everyone has particular questions. Has a cabinet minister ever made an unwanted advance? If you’re telling, are you a troublemaker? If you’re not telling, are you complicit?

There are no easy answers. I have a score of female friends with stories to tell, across all the main parties. Most fear repercussions if they speak out from those keen to tear the sexual reputations of whistleblowers apart.

This week the journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer made clear she did not regard Sir Michael Fallon placing a hand on her knee “as anything other than mildly amusing” — she is determined not to be seen as a victim. But the wider reaction to this story chilled me. Sir Michael’s move was minor in the grand scheme of things; Hartley-Brewer has every right to react as she wants, but some of us do object. An older generation of men may consider it natural to make sexual advances to younger women at work. Yet if any good comes of this cultural moment, it must be to teach such men that ignorance of their impact on women ends here.

When Sir Michael made a move on Hartley-Brewer, he may not have been in a position of power over her. There is no suggestion that he offered her help with her career. But when Damian Green, now the first secretary of state, did the same to me, he offered exactly that. He was a university contemporary of my mother. He offered me career advice and in the same breath made it clear he was sexually interested. It was not acceptable to me at the time and it should not be acceptable behaviour in Westminster in the future.

Mr Green is almost exactly 30 years older than me. He has always cropped up in the peripheral circle of my parents’ acquaintances; he generously agreed to be interviewed by my school newspaper when I was the 16-year-old editor and he the shadow education minister. I did not conduct the interview myself, and had no contact again until I became involved in Tory activism in my twenties. At that point I began to ask him for advice on internal matters. We met for a daytime coffee in 2014 to discuss a political essay collection I was co-editing. He was helpful and avuncular — although, this being Westminster, our coffee meeting took place in a pub. Our Twitter direct messages mention my parents’ fondness for him and my best wishes to his family.

In about early 2015 he invited me for a drink in Waterloo. He asked me if I was seriously considering a political career — I said I thought I was better suited to being a writer but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t considered it. He encouraged me to keep the option in mind, adding that he’d be able to help me. He steered the conversation to the habitual nature of sexual affairs in parliament. He told a funny story about finding himself in a lift with the Cameron aide Rachel Whetstone and her alleged lover, Samantha Cameron’s stepfather, Lord Astor. He mentioned that his own wife was very understanding. I felt a fleeting hand against my knee — so brief, it was almost deniable. I moved my legs away, and tried to end the drink on friendly terms. I then dropped all contact for a year. I wanted nothing to do with him.

For a while I wondered if I’d imagined the incident. I had no proof. And was I self-regarding to think myself attractive? Women are trained to doubt our desirability. But I was angry. I had felt a meaningful political relationship was developing — suddenly, I’d been made aware that there might be a price I was not prepared to pay. Young men I know regularly went for drinks with older mentors in Westminster without complication. Why could I not enjoy the same privilege?

Then, in May last year, I was persuaded by The Times to write a piece about the history of corsets, newly back in fashion. It ended up being quite light-hearted, and I was talked into posing in a not-very-revealing corset. My phone pinged the next day. Mr Green, then out of government, had sent a message, which I have provided to The Times. I had actively avoided him for a year.

“Long time no see. But having admired you in a corset in my favourite tabloid I feel impelled to ask if you are free for a drink anytime?” I ignored the message. Six weeks later, David Cameron fell and Mr Green was suddenly one of the most important men in Theresa May’s cabinet. As an aspirant political writer, it seemed impossible to avoid him professionally. So I sent him a message. “Many congratulations on joining the cabinet — you and your family must be delighted. I’ll look forward to seeing what you achieve in government.”

Awkward relationships like this are part of being a young woman in Westminster. It shouldn’t be the norm — which is why I have chosen to speak out. But it’s crucial to understand that most of us have to maintain relationships with such men in order to thrive professionally. I gave Mr Green the cold shoulder after his pass, then ignored his suggestive text, but since he joined the cabinet I have exchanged many texts with him about political gossip. If you had the mobile number of Theresa May’s No 2, wouldn’t you?

But when I suggested meeting to talk about politics, I requested he arrange it through my part-time PA. I wanted to send a message that this was a professional request. The meeting never happened. I have, however, since seen him amicably in large groups at Westminster parties.

Let me be clear. This is not the most terrible thing that has ever happened to a woman. Mr Green belongs to a different generation, and Damian, as you read this, I doubt you had any idea of how awkward, embarrassed and professionally compromised you made me feel. Perhaps you didn’t realise why I was avoiding you. Perhaps you didn’t feel you were doing anything wrong.

This is the problem. The ruling generation are not sensitive to the reality of Westminster’s power dynamics. That’s why for some of us, bracing ourselves for backlash, now feels the time to speak out.