Britain’s defense secretary has become the first Cabinet casualty of a burgeoning sex harassment scandal roiling the country’s Parliament and threatening Prime Minister Theresa May’s highly fragile minority Conservative government, already riven over Brexit.
Michael Fallon resigned Wednesday after allegations that he’d repeatedly put his hand on the knee of a female political journalist during a party conference. His resignation came as he was preparing for a scheduled meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis.
Amid claims he had behaved inappropriately towards other women journalists, Britain’s 65-year-old defense secretary said he had fallen below the high standards required of his position.
Several other ministers are under investigation, including May’s deputy, Damian Green, who’s accused of making inappropriate sexual advances towards a journalist, and Mark Garnier, the international trade minister, who demanded his secretary buy sex toys for him and repeatedly made sexual remarks about her publicly.
Garnier has dismissed the incidents as “good-humored high jinks” and “amusing conversation,” but apparently that has not satisfied May, who has declined to express her confidence in him.
Two other ministers have denied allegations of sexual harassment, and in Britain’s House of Commons there is a swirl of rumors circulating about more ministers amid a torrent of misconduct allegations that started to flow after harassment and rape accusations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
Allegations of sexual abuse have included a charge of rape by an activist against a senior lawmaker in the opposition Labour Party. Researchers and aides in the House of Commons have been keeping a list of serial “sex pests” in the ranks of the country’s lawmakers that include nearly 50 names.
The list, portions of which are spreading across social media sites, includes seven Cabinet ministers, 14 junior ministers and eight former ministers.
“The culture has changed over the years and what might have been acceptable 10 or 15 years ago is clearly not acceptable now,” Fallon told the BBC Wednesday. “Parliament now has to look at itself and the prime minister has made very clear that conduct needs to be improved and we need to protect the staff of Westminster,” he added.
Government officials admit they are concerned other Cabinet ministers could be forced to resign over past conduct, not only embarrassing May but risking the longevity of her government, which is engulfed by sharp divisions over Brexit and economic policy that threaten to tear apart the Conservative Party.
May has been able to just about contain, partly thanks to her deputy Damian Green, the internecine rifts by balancing her Cabinet between so-called “hard Brexiters,” who want a clean break from the European Union, and those who want to maintain close links with the economic bloc or not to exit at all.
“The fall of Michael Fallon is a mighty blow to Theresa May. Her rickety government has just lost one of its old reliables,” argued veteran political commentator Polly Toynbee. She added, “What an irony it would be if another good old British parliamentary sex scandal brought down this government” rather than Brexit.
May’s minority government is dependent on the votes of Northern Ireland’s Ulster Unionists. But their votes might not be sufficient if there are not only departures from her Cabinet, but also resignations from the House of Commons, thinning out Conservative ranks in the Parliament, and triggering an early election.
Fallon’s downfall shocked Conservative lawmakers Thursday. A solid politician, they had thought the first casualty would be among the more colorful characters of the Cabinet, most likely the foreign secretary and leading Brexiter Boris Johnson, who has long been dogged by controversy over highly public affairs and the fathering of a child outside his marriage.
Some lawmakers included on the list compiled by House of Commons researchers and aides have reacted angrily, complaining the definition of sexual misconduct being used is far too broad. Some lawmakers have been included in the list, nicknamed by Britain’s tabloid press “the dirty dossier,” because they had affairs with staff even though the relationships were consensual.
But many of the misconduct allegations include abuse, harassment and coercion.
Earlier this week, former Cabinet minister Stephen Crabb, who last year ran for the party leadership, apologized for sexting a 19-year-old woman after he interviewed her for a job. Crabb resigned from the Cabinet last year following reports of a similar incident.
The House of Commons has long been notorious for sexual misadventures and misconduct and has had difficulty, despite the dramatic increase in the number of female lawmakers in recent years, from shaking off its reputation and habits as an “old boys club” where female staff have been considered prey and can come under pressure to agree to sexual favors to get jobs or keep them.
Women lawmakers, backed by some of their male counterparts, have long campaigned for the introduction of a tough disciplinary mechanism and a “grievance procedure” that is transparent and not convoluted as the current one to protect staff and deter misconduct.