There have been unconfirmed reports of a chemical attack by Russian forces. The use of chemical weapons on the Ukrainian city of Mariupol is yet to be verified by either Ukrainian or Western authorities, and armed forces minister James Heappey said this morning that the government knows nothing more than what is being reported in the press: a drone over Mariupol and a number of people presenting with breathing issues and dizziness. The minister stressed, however, that “the use of chemical weapons will get a response, and all options are on the table for what response that could be”. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reminded world leaders last night that “the possible use of chemical weapons by the Russian military has already been discussed”, adding: “Already at that time it meant that it was necessary to react to the Russian aggression much tougher and faster.”
Closer to home, the Conservative Party has been thrown into disarray by a guilty verdict in Tory MP Imran Ahmad Khan’s sexual assault trial. The MP for Wakefield was convicted yesterday of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy in 2008. In a since withdrawn statement, Tory backbencher and former justice minister Crispin Blunt denounced the verdict as a “dreadful miscarriage of justice” and “nothing short of an international scandal”. The backlash to Blunt’s comments was swift, with several of his colleagues on the all-party parliamentary group on global LGBT+ rights, which he chairs, announcing their resignations. Among them was Labour’s Chris Bryant who said on Sky News this morning that he was “appalled” by what Blunt had said and called for the whip to be withdrawn. Asked whether the government distanced itself from Blunt’s comments, Heappey said: “Yes.” He added that Khan had been “found guilty, and I think every one of us who believes in the judicial system and the rule of law has to respect that judgement”.
The Khan verdict and Blunt’s deeply inappropriate comments are just the latest episode in a saga of Conservative failings on cases of sexual assault and abuse, epitomised by the party’s handling of the charges against disgraced former MP Charlie Elphicke, who was convicted in July 2021 of sexually assaulting two women. Elphicke’s wife Natalie, who succeeded him as MP for Dover, remains a Tory Party vice-chair despite signing a witness statement accusing one of his victims of lying. Tory MPs including former Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers and backbencher Adam Holloway also defended Elphicke. Holloway has since given a character reference in defence of Khan at his trial. Discussing Blunt’s comments this morning, Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire demanded: “What message does that send to rape and sexual assault victims?” With rape prosecutions in the UK at an all-time low, the Tory Party’s continued failure to appropriately handle sexual assault allegations and convictions within its own ranks is utterly shameful.Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.