'This should be career ending': James Cleverly under fire over joke about drink spiking

Home Secretary James Cleverly during a visit to see the Project Servator deployment in action around the festive market in Trafalgar Square, central London. Servator is a police operation delivered in public spaces to protect the public from terrorism and other crimes. Picture date: Tuesday December 19, 2023. (Photo by Jordan Pettitt/PA Images via Getty Images)
Home secretary James Cleverly is facing calls to resign. (Getty Images) (Jordan Pettitt - PA Images via Getty Images)

James Cleverly is facing calls to resign after joking about spiking his wife's drink – just hours after announcing new plans to crack down on spiking.

The home secretary told female guests at a Downing Street reception that “a little bit of Rohypnol in her drink every night” was “not really illegal if it’s only a little bit”. He also said the secret to a long marriage was ensuring your spouse was “someone who is always mildly sedated so she can never realise there are better men out there”, according to the Sunday Mirror.

Cleverly has since apologised for the "ironic joke", made at a Downing Street reception, and said he made it "in what was always understood as a private conversation". However, the Fawcett Society has questioned how the public can "trust him to seriously address violence against women and girls" again.

"It’s sickening that James Cleverly, the senior minister in charge of keeping women safe, thinks that something as terrifying as drugging women is a laughing matter," the gender equality charity said. "No wonder women don't feel safe. We know that 'banter' is the excuse under which misogyny is allowed to thrive."

Recommended reading

Writing on X, formerly Twitter, anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller said that if prime minister Rishi Sunak does not sack Cleverly, he is "confirming the Tory Party as misogynistic", with "no interest" in addressing an "appalling" increase in violence against women. Palliative care doctor and writer Rachel Clarke added: "The actual Home Secretary, joking about date rape. Staggeringly awful."

Sharing an article about a case in France about a man accused of drugging his wife every night, co-founder of the Reclaim These Streets campaign group, Jamie Klingler, said: "The @JamesCleverly joke isn’t funny because men do sedate their wives. But sure - complain that the jokes were meant to be private whilst pretending you care about women being sedated and raped."

Broadcaster and writer Jemma Forte added: "More stupid than anything. Shows the calibre of politician in this current administration. Whatever your flavour of politics, you know you wouldn’t find a Blair, a Brown a Ken Clarke or a Vince Cable etc etc cracking bad taste gags."

File photo dated 21/09/23 of Home Secretary James Cleverly with his wife Susannah Cleverly. Cleverly faced calls to quit after joking about spiking his wife's drink with a date rape drug. Mr Cleverly apologised after his
The home secretary met his wife Susie at university and the couple have two children. (Alamy) (Daniel Leal, PA Images)

Given that Cleverly was appointed after Suella Braverman was sacked over her controversial comments about the Metropolitan Police's handling of pro-Palestine protests, members of the Tory party hoped the new home secretary would provide more stability.

This is now in doubt, according to columnist and author James Ball, who said: "The entire purpose of moving James Cleverly to the Home Office was that he was supposed to be a safe pair of hands. Given that, it’s truly amazing how many stupid and self-inflicted news cycles he’s managed to generate in the six weeks he’s had the job."

A doctor and advocate for victims of rape and addiction, who goes by the name "Dr Mike" on X, added: "The home secretary making a joke about date rape and spiking proves that he is the wrong person for the job. This should be career ending. Women deserve better from the man in charge of the police."

James Cleverly made an 'ironic joke'

Allies of Cleverly said his comments were made in a private setting but he recognises they were inappropriate. His spokesman said: “In what was always understood as a private conversation, James, the home secretary tackling spiking, made what was clearly meant to be an ironic joke – for which he apologises.”

Cleverly did not recall the exact wording he had used as it was a private "off-the-record" event, which took place on 18 December, according to the BBC. The prime minister, who is understood to have attended the reception, is yet to comment on Cleverly's remarks.

Senior Labour figures have hit out at Cleverly, with shadow minister for domestic violence Alex Davies-Jones saying: “‘It was a joke’ is the most tired excuse in the book and no-one is buying it. If the home secretary is serious about tackling spiking, and violence against women and girls, then that requires a full cultural change. The ‘banter’ needs to stop and it has to start at the top.”

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper suggested the comments suggest Cleverly doesn't "get how serious" violence against women and girls is. She added that victims will be "questioning if they can trust him to take this vile crime seriously".

What is the government doing to crack down on spiking?

The Home Office has unveiled a package of measures to curb spiking, including research into self-testing kits, more training for door staff and better education for young people. It has also pledged intensified police action during key weeks of the year – an approach that has proved successful in tackling other crimes, such as knife crime.

Meanwhile the government will also seek to tweak the Criminal Justice Bill to make it clear, "without any doubt" that spiking is illegal. Separate guidance, set in law, will provide "a clear, unequivocal definition of what spiking is".

Practical on-the-ground measures will include training hundreds more door staff to spot potential perpetrators and signs customers have been targeted, and research into spiking testing kits so bars, clubs and the police can detect if someone’s drink has been spiked in real-time. An online spiking tool will be provided to all police forces in the UK to make it easier for people to file anonymous reports, while new spiking guidance will provide resources for the public to learn about spiking and how to report it.

The National Police Chiefs' Council has said it is very difficult to get a clear picture of how widespread spiking is, as it is hard to collect reliable data. According to a YouGov poll from November 2021, 11% of women and 6% of men said they had been spiked. A third of women and one in five men have been spiked or know someone who has.