By Elizabeth Piper
LONDON (Reuters) -Former Conservative lawmaker Christopher Pincher should be suspended from the UK parliament for eight weeks, a standards watchdog said on Thursday, raising the prospect of another by-election that could add pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Pincher, who now sits as an independent, was suspended by then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson last year after being accused of sexual misconduct. The former prime minister’s handling of the allegations accelerated moves to topple him.
The possible suspension could hurt Sunak, whose governing Conservatives are way behind the opposition Labour Party in opinion polls. Sunak already faces three by-elections this month, tests lawmakers fear the party will lose.
British media reported that Pincher had sexually assaulted two male guests at a London club. In response, Pincher said he had drunk too much, embarrassed himself and “caused upset”.
The Committee on Standards, a parliamentary watchdog, said Pincher’s behaviour “has had a significant impact on the two individuals concerned”, although it noted that he had “expressed genuine contrition”.
“The perception that MPs (members of parliament) can engage in such conduct with impunity does significantly impact public perception of the House (of Commons) and its members,” the committee said.
“We therefore recommend that Mr Pincher be suspended from the service of the House for eight weeks.”
Such a suspension would trigger a by-election, but the recommendation has first to be agreed by lawmakers and Pincher has the right to appeal. Sunak’s spokesperson said it was up to parliament to decide whether to back the recommendation, pointing out: “The prime minister has talked about the importance of integrity and accountability at every level”.
Pincher said in the report: “I’m conscious of the effect the evening and the coverage must have had on all the parties involved, as well as on my own family.”
“I’m very sorry and apologise to them all, as I did the day I resigned from the government.”
Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, called on Pincher to resign. “The British people deserve so much better than 13 years of Tory (Conservative) chaos and sleaze,” she said in a statement.
The accusations against Pincher had piled pressure on Johnson, who had been accused of knowing about other, earlier reports of Pincher’s behaviour.
The then prime minister’s spokesman denied that, saying Johnson was not aware of any specific allegations when he appointed Pincher to his government role as deputy chief whip, enforcing party discipline.
(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle and David Holmes)
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