The Cabinet Office is to investigate whether Mark Garnier broke the ministerial code after he admitted asking his former assistant to buy sex toys.
Garnier, who is a minister the Department for International Trade under Liam Fox, was the most senior of several politicians named in reports on Sunday, as allegations of sexual harassment swirl around Westminster in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, which has encouraged women in other professions to come forward.
The Conservative MP did not deny the accusations about events in 2010, made by his former assistant Caroline Edmondson in the Mail on Sunday.
“I’m not going to be dishonest,” he said. He insisted that referring to Edmondson as “sugar tits”, as she says he did, was a reference to the popular BBC comedy Gavin and Stacey, saying: “It absolutely does not constitute harassment.”
The Cabinet Office inquiry was revealed by the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, during an interview on BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday.
According to the newspaper report, Garnier gave Edmondson money to buy a sex toy for his wife and another for a woman working in his Wyre Valley constituency office, and stood outside the shop while she bought them.
Edmondson said: “He suggested to me in a Commons bar one evening that we went shopping for sex toys in Soho. The next day, he said: ‘Come on, let’s do it.’
“He took me to Soho and gave me the money to buy two vibrators. He stood outside the shop while I did.”
Garnier, a former City fund manager, is married with three children, and was elected MP for Wyre Forest in 2010.
Downing Street has not yet responded to Garnier’s case, but a separate report in the Sunday Times claimed Theresa May receives regular briefings on the sexual affairs of members of the government from Conservative whips, who are responsible for enforcing party discipline.
Labour is also braced for fresh allegations of inappropriate behaviour, as junior staff feel emboldened to come forward.
Some MPs have claimed allegations are not taken seriously enough. One former Conservative minister said: “It’s grim: the whole culture has to change.”
Another senior Tory named on Sunday was Stephen Crabb, who stood for the party leadership last year. He has admitted sending a 19-year-old who hoped to work for him a series of messages, which he described as “sexual chatter”.
“We exchanged messages which talked about sex but none of it was meant seriously,” Crabb told the Sunday Telegraph. “We met for coffee a few times and had a glass of wine once at the Commons, but nothing more. I accept any kind of sexual chatter like this is totally wrong and I am sorry for my actions,” he said. The incident is separate from one last year in which the MP sent explicit text messages to another young woman.
The Weinstein affair, in which the former Hollywood mogul has been accused of multiple incidents of rape and sexual harassment, many of them by women who hoped he would further their careers, has raised questions about the culture at Westminster.
The environment secretary, Michael Gove, apologised on Saturday after making a joke about Weinstein on BBC Radio 4’s Today.
He told John Humphrys, during an interview to mark the show’s 60th anniversary: “Sometimes I think coming into the studio with you, John, is a bit like going into Harvey Weinstein’s bedroom: you hope to emerge with your dignity intact.”
Gove later tweeted: “Apologies for my clumsy attempt at humour on R4 Today this morning – it wasn’t appropriate. I’m sorry and apologise unreservedly.”