Boris Johnson has been defended as a "feminist" at a Conservative party conference, after women MPs accused him of putting their lives in danger and a journalist said Johnson once squeezed her thigh so high up she flinched.
Rachel Maclean, Tory MP for Redditch, Worcestershire, said: "I absolutely judge the PM to be a feminist, if you look at his record and what he’s done for women."
Flick Drummond, a former MP who lost her seat in 2017, said everyone was "out to get him", adding: "He’s out on the street and he’s like the Pied Piper, people follow him right down the street and they all want to meet him and shake his hand."
And former defence secretary Penny Mordaunt said he was a "decent person" who "cares a great deal about women and girls", although he "occasionally has the style of Frank Spencer in a china shop".
Their comments at a Centre for Policy Studies fringe meeting followed a week in which Johnson was condemned by women MPs for failing to moderate his language in the wake of death threats, forced to deny wrongdoing over his links with US businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri, and accused by a journalist of squeezing both her thigh and that of the woman the other side of him at a lunch.
"Under the table, I feel Johnson’s hand on my thigh," Sunday Times columnist Charlotte Edwardes wrote. "He gives it a squeeze. His hand is high up my leg and he has enough inner flesh beneath his fingers to make me sit suddenly upright."
Tory MP George Freeman told the fringe meeting that the Conservative party needed to attract far more young women voters, saying they had flocked to Labour in the 2017 election.
BuzzFeed News asked the panel whether that challenge had been made more difficult given the accusations from women towards Johnson in recent days.
Freeman said: "Boris is clearly a figure who is politically provocative, he’s energetic, he catalyses a reaction and he’s right now attracting a massive campaign of personal and political attack.
"It’s tough, I just think some balance in this... I saw the faces of the nurses the other day when he was announcing the biggest investment in infrastructure in 30 years and if you look at the YouTube video — the way the nurses' faces lit up, the way, particularly the women in the hospital, lit up, I think we’re hearing a very biased account of the prime minister's chemistry."
Drummond, former MP for Portsmouth South, said: "I haven’t read any papers today but they are all out to get him at the moment and he’s incredibly popular in many areas, I don’t think people see that."
Mordaunt, who was sacked from the cabinet by Johnson when he took power, said she had defended Johnson at the Conservatives' backbench 1922 committee this week.
"I know that he is not the individual that he is quite often painted as being; he occasionally has the style of Frank Spencer in a china shop but he is a decent person and he cares a great deal about women and girls, certainly that was my experience of him when he was foreign secretary," she said.
And Maclean, parliamentary private secretary to chancellor Sajid Javid, added: "The original feminist talked about deeds not words — and on that basis I absolutely judge the PM to be a feminist.
"If you look at his record and what he’s done for women, I would point to the record of female genital mutilation, I would say he’s been the foremost champion of putting resources into that around the world.
"But I do think we live in the era of words now too and I think that has become part of the dialogue as well and we all do need to reflect on that — what I would say is there is a difference between ... how people talk about things in Westminster to how they talk about things in my constituency in Redditch.
"It’s been politicised, I think, beyond where it ought to be and the general public can see that and see some of it for what it is."
Johnson has long been supported by Nimco Ali, a campaigner against female genital mutilation, who described him as a "real feminist" during the Tory leadership campaign this summer. She said that as foreign secretary, he had also "used every platform available to advance the cause of female education around the world".
But critics point to the language he has used about women, such as describing Muslim women as "letterboxes" in his Telegraph column.
A Number 10 spokesperson denied that Johnson had squeezed Charlotte Edwardes' thigh. "This allegation is untrue," they said.