What would you do if you found yourself accused of the worst sort of crime, the rape of a child? Former MP John Hemming has been there, and is rather candid about the way he reacted.
‘How do you cope? You get very drunk,’ he says matter-of-factly. ‘I’d never been exactly teetotal, but when all this blew up, I hit the bottle harder than I perhaps should have. How do you make sure you get to sleep, rather than lie there having it all go round in your head? If you’re drunk, it makes it easier.’
It is two years since 57-year-old Mr Hemming — always one of our more flamboyant politicians, mostly because of his colourful private life — was accused of being the member of a paedophile ring. The allegations are still mind-blowing (‘fantastical’, he says pointedly).
A woman called Esther Baker, whom he claims never to have met, accused the one-time MP for Birmingham Yardley of being involved in the systematic abuse of children as young as six.
In graphic accounts, she claimed she was molested during the Eighties and Nineties in woods in Staffordshire, beginning when she was six and continuing until she was 11.
She claimed that serving police officers would stand guard during the attacks, and sometimes join in.
Today Esther, now 34, is still adamant that Mr Hemming was one of her attackers, telling me that she ‘has no doubt’ and that his face is clearly etched in her memory.
She did not name Mr Hemming publicly when she made her allegations and — since he had not been charged — his name was never in the public domain.
But Esther waived her right to anonymity and in going public with her story, Mr Hemming says she provided enough detail for him to be easily identifiable.
Reports described her alleged attacker as a Lib Dem MP and a piano player. It was common knowledge in Westminster that Mr Hemming was a keen jazz pianist.
‘Everyone knew it was me,’ he says. ‘It didn’t take much to work it out. I had reporters on my doorstep. I had to tell my children — all but the youngest who was just three, too little to know anything. But I had to have that conversation with my second youngest, who was only nine.’
Staffordshire Police began investigating Esther’s claims and in May 2015, she gave 33 hours of detailed testimony.
This week, however, they informed Mr Hemming that he would not be charged.
And yesterday, police ruled out launching a probe into Esther Baker, saying: ‘It would not benefit her or the wider community.’
Mr Hemming had wanted her to be investigated for perverting the course of justice.
Now, you might imagine Mr Hemming would want to shut the door on this chapter of his life as quickly as possible. But he has taken a very different approach.
This week he chose to go public about his ordeal, identifying himself as the MP at the centre of the scandal.
Why? ‘Because I have no intention of letting this go,’ he says. ‘And to fight back it makes it easier if I identify myself. What has happened here has been monstrous. I had the evidence right at the start that none of this could have happened, and I went to the police with it before they even asked to speak to me. That it has taken two years to publicly declare the obvious is unacceptable.’
He believes he has been the victim of an ‘outrageous’ situation in the wake of near hysteria about historical child abuse, following the Jimmy Savile controversy. ‘What I fear has happened is that the pendulum swung too far one way — but now has swung too far the other,’ he says. ‘It makes you ask: ‘Is our system too supportive of people who make false accusations?’ ‘
He talks about his life ‘hanging in limbo’ for two years. He’s clearly not the hysterical type (he studied theoretical, atomic and nuclear physics at Oxford, and has the attention to detail of the scientist), but he is livid at what he and his family have been through.
‘Your life is on hold for two years. As much as your head tells you it’s all utter nonsense — bonkers! — you know that people are wrongly convicted. You also know that these crimes get people attacked. And we did face attacks.’
He can’t go into detail about these, because they may result in criminal prosecutions, but suffice to say his family received terrifying and unwanted attention and moved house during the ordeal.
He describes how every aspect of his life was affected. His partner, Emily, 38 — the mother of his two youngest children — was understandably distraught.
His children (he has three older children — now aged 17, 24 and 27 — from his first marriage) were ‘so shocked’.
His business ambitions suffered. He owns a technology firm which turns over £24 million a year and employs 250 people, but had also planned to use time away from politics to work on a new start-up.
‘This was knocked back because of the false allegations and the need to remain in Birmingham for security reasons.’
He means fears that his family would be attacked by ‘pitchfork-wavers’. ‘There were so many security concerns. We’ve always had CCTV, but now we have the best system going, simply because I needed to protect us.’
Even his piano playing was affected. ‘I was prevented from getting more gigs for my jazz band because of concern about being attacked while I was performing,’ he says.
Then there were the worries about his career. When the story first broke, he was fighting for re-election to Parliament, and says he faced the ’embarrassment’ of having to come clean with constituency officials.
‘No one believed the allegations. But being accused of this sort of crime is the worst thing. I would have preferred to have been accused of being a bank robber.’
Did he worry about going to prison? ‘Not when I was thinking logically, but you know that mistakes are made.
‘As an MP, I’ve been involved in several criminal appeals — two of the cases were about sex crimes, too — so I know it happens.’
His health suffered. As well as drinking (‘wine and beer’), his blood pressure went up.
He says he could not bring himself to tell his mother, who is 89, about the allegations.
‘I only told her this week, when it was all over,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t worry her like that.’
At times, he seems slightly baffled that he wasn’t able to shrug off the accusations. ‘My head was telling me that I should not give it a second thought. I could prove that it was nonsense,’ he says.
‘But it did still affect me. You have to have thick skin to be an MP, and I thought I had the hide of a rhino, but it got to me.’
Little wonder he is hitting out now — at the police, for the length of time the investigation took — at Esther Baker and her supporters, and at his political rivals for what he sees as their inappropriate involvement.
Particular ire is directed at Labour MP Jess Phillips, who won the parliamentary seat he lost.
Ms Phillips had tweeted her support for Baker, calling her ‘brave’ for speaking out, and urging others to come forward.
Mr Hemming has previously accused his successor of publicly campaigning on the allegations made by Baker — something the MP has denied. So what of his feelings now for Baker? ‘I have no sympathy for her,’ he says. ‘This case involves a complainant who had a track record of changing her allegations. These were false allegations.’
With no charges forthcoming, Esther Baker is either a fantasist or a woman who has suffered a terrible ordeal but made a mistake over her attacker’s identity.
Yet she hasn’t been keen to slink into the shadows this week either. ‘I will not be called a liar,’ she said on Twitter. ‘I’m angry. I’m devastated. I feel let down and humiliated. That I laid everything bare for nothing. But I’ll carry on.’ Esther Baker, now working as a cashier in Liverpool, agrees to talk to me, and insists that she has not changed her story.
She hits out at one of Mr Hemming’s claims that she had made separate allegations of abuse in a religious setting. ‘That was part of the same cycle,’ she says. ‘It pre-dated what happened in the woods, but it was part of the same thing. It was true.’ Presumably one of the problems the police encountered — as in all cases of historic child abuse — was the lack of precise dates and verifiable detail.
‘Yes,’ says Esther. ‘But it happened. When I was going through it with the police I could put a timescale on it through things such as what glasses I remember I was wearing at the time, but in terms of actual dates, no, there weren’t any in relation to [Mr Hemming], although there were specific dates with others.’
Esther says she was floored to see a photograph of Mr Hemming online and recognise him as her attacker. How was she so sure that this was the right man?
‘I liken it to your parents splitting up when you are young. You might only see your dad occasionally, but you will still recognise him years later, won’t you?’ she explains. ‘Well, I saw him [her attacker] as often as I saw my dad. I have no doubt.’
She describes sitting on her abuser’s knee while she played the piano. It is, on the surface at least, a convincing account.
She is articulate and while clearly damaged (she has claimed she cannot have children as a result of the abuse that was inflicted), there are no outward indications that she is living in a fantasy world.
Mr Hemming says he first knew something was afoot one Saturday during the General Election campaign of 2015.
‘I had a phonecall from a reporter saying that allegations were being made about me and sexual abuse. I had no idea what he was talking about,’ he recalls.
Mr Hemming says he first knew something was afoot one Saturday during the General Election campaign of 2015
Later that day, he received another call from an acquaintance, who seemed to know that Esther was getting in touch with police.
‘At this point I hadn’t been contacted by the police, but I called them myself,’ Mr Hemming says.
‘I actually told them I thought there was going to be an attempt to pervert the course of justice.
‘I had a few conversations with them during that week. When I hadn’t heard anything from them for a few weeks, I thought it had gone away.’
Alas no. Later in May, after the General Election when Mr Hemming lost his seat to Labour, Esther — who insists she had already gone to police by this point — gave an explosive interview to Sky News.
Mr Hemming says this ‘should have rung alarm bells’ with the authorities. ‘In any investigation it is very important that the suspect doesn’t find out what is in disclosure by the time they undergo an interview under caution,’ he says.
‘The action of going public suggested she might be interested in publicity and attention rather than justice.’
At this stage, Mr Hemming did some research of his own about Esther. ‘It was relatively easy to find out that in December 2014 she had done Press stories making allegations about being abused in a church setting.
‘It was also easy to find that on Twitter she had said, in January 2015, that she had ‘never met a politician’.’
By this point Mr Hemming had also given the police information he believes proved that the case was ‘nonsense’.
He won’t reveal what this is ‘because it may form the basis of further legal proceedings’, but says: ‘I was relatively confident that they would see that the whole thing was just nonsense.’
Nonetheless, even before he had presented himself for a formal police interview under caution, he had compiled his own ‘evidence’ about his movements.
‘At the time of the first allegations — 1988 — I was working full-time in London during the week. I found a number of witnesses willing to confirm where I was.
‘I’d also kept all my credit card receipts and timesheets and diaries from the late Eighties. I could see that I only ever went through Staffordshire on the way up to Liverpool. I’d maybe stop at a service station on the M6 — I was never in the woods.’
During the Eighties, Mr Hemming was married to his first wife, Christine. They became the subject of the gossip columns in 2005 when it emerged that he had been living a double life and had a daughter, now 11, with Emily, who was then his PA.
In 2011, there was a memorable spat when Christine was given a nine-month suspended sentence for burglary, after stealing a kitten from Emily’s home.
The following year, after finally splitting from him, she gave a jaw-dropping interview about their marriage, revealing that he had a been a serial philanderer who’d had around 26 affairs.
Six months after the separation, Emily gave birth to her second child with Mr Hemming, a son.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mr Hemming wants to keep his ex-wife Christine out of the story (‘although she has been very supportive’), but says it is unthinkable that, back in the Eighties, he could have been regularly leaving the family home to take part in criminal activities.
‘I had a three-year-old child at that point,’ he says. ‘I was not the sort of person who would disappear for days at a time.’
In the event, Mr Hemming was not asked to provide any alibis, because he was never charged — a fact which tells its own story, he insists.
What happens now? Neither side seems to want this distressing story to go away.
Baker plans to appeal the CPS decision, and said last night that she hopes the publicity surrounding the case as a result of Mr Hemming outing himself will bring more ‘victims’ forward.
Mr Hemming is livid that she is still describing herself as a ‘victim’, and wants to see her charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice.
‘People cannot make false accusations and get away with it,’ he says. ‘It ruins lives.’