Theresa May believes her defence secretary was right to apologise for repeatedly touching a journalist’s knee during a dinner, but is not triggering an investigation into the incident, according to her official spokesman.
He made clear that the prime minister did not approve of Michael Fallon’s behaviour towards Julia Hartley-Brewer in 2002 but said the case was in the past and would not be taken further.
However, when pressed by reporters the Downing Street spokesman would not say that May had full confidence in her defence secretary.
“I’m not doing running commentaries – I’ve dealt with the incident,” he said, before offering a more general statement about May’s opinion of her cabinet. “The prime minister has confidence in her government and ministers.”
Asked specifically about Fallon, the spokesman said: “He has been clear he apologised for something that took place in the past – it is right that he apologised in relation to that incident.”
During the briefing to Westminster reporters, the spokesman repeated his refusal to offer a “running commentary” nine times and said he would not comment on speculation.
When it was pointed out that Fallon had admitted the incident, he simply repeated that the apology was the correct response.
He said there were clear differences between the case of Fallon and Hartley-Brewer and that of Mark Garnier, the minister facing a Cabinet Office investigation after asking a former assistant to buy sex toys.
May herself triggered the investigation, according to the spokesman, but would not do so in the case of Fallon because Hartley-Brewer had not complained.
Hartley-Brewer, a journalist and radio presenter, said that she did not want to escalate the situation. “No one was remotely upset or distressed by it,” she wrote on social media, adding that she did not feel herself to be a victim of sexual harassment and believed a Westminster witch-hunt was under way.
She added: “I calmly and politely explained to him that, if he did it again, I would ‘punch him in the face’. He withdrew his hand and that was the end of the matter. I have had no issues since with the man in question and do not regard the incident as anything but mildly amusing.”
The prime minister’s spokesman was also asked about the publication of a redacted list outlining allegations against Tory MPs that is circulating widely at Westminster. He would not be drawn on particular names on the list, saying: “I’m not getting involved in speculation about individuals.”
This article was written by Anushka Asthana Political editor, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 31st October 2017 14.07 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010