A ballooning sexual harassment scandal in Westminster claimed its first victim late Monday as Secretary of State for Defense Michael Fallon, saying his conduct had fallen below the high standards demanded of his position.
Prime Minister Theresa May, weakened after losing her parliamentary majority in a June election, loses a loyalist at a time when she is trying to break a deadlock in talks to leave the European Union.
Fallon’s was the first high-profile resignation after a growing number of allegations of inappropriate behavior were made against ministers and lawmakers, fuelled by sex abuse allegations against Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein is under investigation by police in connection with multiple incidents reported in the last couple of weeks.
Fallon apologised earlier this week for touching a radio presenter’s knee in 2002 – something the woman in question described on social media as “mildly amusing.” However, The Times of London cited ‘allies’ of the former minister as saying that the actual cause of his departure was that “he was unable to guarantee that there would not be more stories about inappropriate behavior with other journalists.
In his letter of resignation to May, he said there had been many allegations about lawmakers in recent days, including “some about my previous conduct.”
“Many of these have been false but I accept that in the past I have fallen below the high standards that we require of the armed forces that I have the honour to represent,” he said.
May replied in a letter saying she appreciated “the characteristically serious manner” in which Fallon had considered his position and “the particular example you wish to set to servicemen and women and others.”
The growing scandal could damage May if there are further allegations against members of her party as it relies on a small Northern Irish party for a majority in parliament. But Fallon, for one, has given no indication that he will stand down as a Member of Parliament and thus trigger a by-election. Other, more junior MPs accused of misdeeds may not be so fortunate.
Allegations of sexual abuse have ranged from a charge of rape by an activist in the opposition Labour Party by a senior party member, to unconfirmed details of serial “sex pests” on a list reportedly drafted by aides and researchers in parliament.
May has ordered investigations into a report that one of her ministers asked a female secretary to buy sex toys and an allegation her deputy, Damian Green, made an inappropriate sexual advance on a young woman – something he denies. On Monday, she said she would seek an urgent meeting with leaders of all the other parties represented at Westminster on how to tackle a phenomenon that is not restricted to the Conservative Party.
The prime minister, who has long championed the careers of female lawmakers, said on Wednesday that action would be taken when there were allegations and evidence of sexual misconduct.
“I am very clear that we will take action against those where there are allegations that we see, and the evidence is there, that there has been misconduct,” May told lawmakers.
However, May’s sincerity was questioned by Labour’s Lisa Nandy, who reminded her of three previous occasions when, as Home Secretary, she had been failed to act on information suggesting that incriminating evidence against individual MPs was routinely used by whips to enforce party discipline.