Theresa May staff employed ‘House of Cards’ tactics over outing scandal, MPs say

MPs have accused Theresa May of “bringing shame on her office” with “House of Cards” tactics – after the PM defended staff who outed a political activist as gay.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s special adviser Stephen Parkinson came under fire over the weekend after he put out a press statement via Downing Street revealing the sexuality of former Brexit campaigner Shahmir Sanni, who had come forward to expose alleged irregularities in the Vote Leave campaign.

The Prime Minister has refused to publicly reprimand Mr Parkinson for his actions, insisting he is doing a “very good job” and that the release at question was a “personal statement” – though it was signed off and circulated by officials at Number 10.

MPs tore into the PM during a discussion on the issue in Parliament yesterday, after Mr Sanni broke down in tears in an interview over fears of consequences for his family in Pakistan, where being gay is illegal.

Shahmir Sanni and fellow whistleblower Christopher Wylie

Green MP Caroline Lucas said; “It is simply not good enough for the Prime Minister to have airily dismissed the questions as she did in the House yesterday.

“Her attempts to brush off complaints about the disgraceful outing of Shahmir Sanni were beneath her and bring shame on her office.”

Labour’s Ben Bradshaw also tore into “a disgraceful attempt from Downing Street to discredit [Mr Sanni] by, among other things, outing him as gay.”

He added: “I am amazed that the man who did that is still in his job, because that was totally unacceptable.”

Scottish National Party MP Neil Gray, meanwhile, accused the Prime Minister’s staff of using “disgraceful House of Cards-style tactics to divert attention by outing a whistleblower as being gay”, referencing the popular series which depicts a corrupt and manipulative politician who frequently resorts to smears and dirty tricks to maintain power.

Shahmir Sanni

The SNP’s Tommy Shepard added: “The Prime Minister’s explanation yesterday that this was a personal statement by Stephen Parkinson just does not hold water.

“How can it be a personal statement when someone is at a desk in No. 10 Downing Street, at the heart of Government—when they are on the payroll, issuing a statement from No. 10 Downing Street?

“This must be the first occasion in history, certainly that I can remember, when the Government have decided to attack a whistleblower by outing them as gay, causing them the possibility of actual harm to themselves and their family, and it is a disgrace.”

Rubbishing the claim that the release was not an official action on behalf of Downing Street, he said: “On the email it says ‘official’, so there can be no question that the Prime Minister did not know what Stephen Parkinson was saying.

“I have written to the Government today to demand that this young man be apologised to for the actions that have been taken. That is the very least that we can expect.

“Most reasonable people in this country will be wondering why Stephen Parkinson has not already been sacked, quite frankly, and in many other companies and areas of life, that is exactly what would happen.”

British Prime Minister Theresa May (Photo by LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)

Junior Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith, who was sent out to respond on behalf of the government, did not address the issue.

She said: “I will not be adding anything in this debate to what the Prime Minister said on those issues yesterday.”

Theresa May faced anger in Parliament on Monday when she refused to condemn Mr Parkinson’s actions, and claimed the message circulated by Downing Street was actually a “personal statement” from the adviser – drawing cries of “disgrace” from Labour MPs.

Responding to a question from Labour’s Ben Bradshaw, she said: “Any statements issued were personal statements… they were personal statements… they were personal statements that were issued.

“I of course recognise the importance of ensuring that we do recognise that for some, being outed as gay is difficult because of their family and circumstances. What I want to see is a world where everyone is able to be confident in their sexuality and doesn’t have to worry about such things.”

MPs heckled the PM repeatedly as she claimed the message was “personal”, which had been sent via email by Kirsty Buchanan, Downing Street’s Head of Broadcast media, from an official Downing Street email address.

It was reportedly signed off by the Prime Minister’s chief communications officer, Robbie Gibb.

Mr Sanni, who volunteered for the supposedly-independent BeLeave group, had named Mr Parkinson as one of the Vote Leave officials who secretly guided their campaign in violation of electoral rules.

In the official statement released via Downing Street’s press office, Mr Parkinson hit back by revealing that he had been in a relationship with Mr Sanni at the time, claiming he had only provided advice to him as his boyfriend.

Mr Sanni says the public revelation has forced him to come out to his family in Pakistan, where homosexuality is illegal and strongly taboo – and has left his relatives living in fear of their safety.

On Monday a group of 13 out LGBT MPs signed a letter demanding action from Mrs May.

The group, which includes Angela Eagle, Chris Bryant and Stephen Doughty, wrote: “It is despicable for the office of Prime Minister to launch a vindictive personal attack this way, and unacceptable for your office to out people in an attempt to discredit them.

“The statement was an abuse of power against a vulnerable young man and his family, and it demeans your office.

“We call on you to apologise to the young man in question and to sack the member of your staff responsible for this serious abuse of privileged position they hold.”

LGBT rights organisation Stonewall has also branded the breach of privacy “inexcusable” and dangerous.

It said: “This public disclosure of Sanni’s sexuality was made without his consent. The severity of this breach of confidence cannot be underestimated.

“Telling someone about your sexuality or gender identity must always be a personal decision. No person has the right to take that decision away.

“Publicly outing someone robs that person of the chance to define who they are in their own terms if they even want to. In extreme cases – as in this one – it can also put the lives of that person and their loved ones in danger.

“Outing someone ignores the many valid reasons a person may have for not choosing to be open about their sexuality to every person in their life. Concerns about personal safety to fears about discrimination at work or in their place of worship all play a part in someone’s decision to come out.

“Some LGBT people are not out because of a real need to protect themselves. We do not live in a world that is accepting of everyone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Not only does the world still have a long way to go, so does Britain, as this irresponsible indiscretion shows.”

It added: “What has happened to Shahmir Sanni is inexcusable. Outing someone can put lives at risk. We will always stand with and support all LGBT people, whether they are out or not.

“No LGBT person should ever have to live in fear that someone might tell the world about their sexuality or gender identity before they are ready. Only that person will know if they are comfortable and ready to come out.

“That choice and decision must always be respected.”