Fallon: the image-conscious minister felled by indiscretions

Michael Fallon at EDF's Teesside offshore windfarm

Sir Michael Fallon’s appointment as defence secretary in July 2014 was accompanied by a sigh of relief on the part of most British defence correspondents.

After almost three years of his predecessor Philip Hammond – dull, uncommunicative, barely able to conceal his disdain for journalists – Fallon held the promise of being more interesting, more likely to engage with the media, to gossip and occasionally be indiscreet. And for the most part, he was. 

On RAF flights, there is no drink unless the defence secretary sanctions it. Fallon, returning with journalists from the Baltic countries or the Middle East, could usually be persuaded to be sociable and have the booze locker opened.

In the end, it was his personal life that cost him his place in the cabinet, not a major defence row or scandal involving the armed forces or a miscalculation in Iraq or Syria.

He initially appeared to have survived. He apologised for touching the knee of journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer, a move made easier by her decision to play the incident down. But unspecified other incidents of similar behaviour did for him.

His record as defence secretary is mixed. Fallon genuinely seemed to believe he was doing a good job: he claimed to have increased the defence budget, raised the profile of the UK in Nato, identified Russia as a threat early on, and bonded with the US through joint operations in Syria and Iraq.

But there is a different narrative, with many of Fallon’s claims viewed as bluster around the world and within the UK’s armed forces. In the face of three large budget-eating “vanity projects”, as they are routinely referred to within the Ministry of Defence – Trident nuclear submarine renewal and two new aircraft carriers – the rest of the service was shrinking: the army, the rest of the navy’s surface fleet, and the number of planes. And they faced further squeezes.

He faced criticism too for actions such as the UK’s support for the Saudi bombardment of Yemen and the resulting high civilian casualty rate. He faced scorn for claiming that the UK’s role in Yemen was purely advisory, and for stating that the RAF never hit an innocent civilian throughout all the airstrikes against Islamic State in Iraq.

He was combative in public – used as the Conservatives’ attack dog to make personal observations on Labour leaders and MPs – and in private conversation, with journalists from the conservative-leaning press as well as those he viewed as leftwing or liberal.

Fallon seemed to commit as much time to his media image as he did to policy. His advisers constantly wondered how an announcement might play in the media, particularly the parts he was most concerned about: the Daily Mail, the Sun and Sky News. Often this was to the detriment of senior members of the armed forces who also wanted to spend time with the media or make a newsworthy announcement.

Defence secretaries, especially those who have never served in the forces, often become carried away with the role, enjoying too much of the trappings, saluting a military parade or kitted out in combat uniform.

There was hint of that in Fallon’s resignation speech, when he spoke about the privilege of representing the armed forces, especially when he said he had fallen below the high standards required of the services.

But he was never a member of the armed forces. The standards he was required to uphold were those of a parliamentarian.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Ewen MacAskill Defence and intelligence correspondent, for The Guardian on Wednesday 1st November 2017 21.56 Europe/London

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