Theresa May moved quickly on Thursday to fill the hole in her cabinet left by the departure of Sir Michael Fallon as defence secretary over the Westminster sleaze scandal. But the noisy backlash from her own backbenchers underlined how fragile her authority has become.
Chief whips are rarely popular, but Gavin Williamson’s rapid promotion from May’s enforcer to the man in charge of 200,000 British troops sparked an outburst of fury from MPs who felt a more heavyweight figure should have been given the job.
By promoting Williamson, who did the deal with the Democratic Unionist party in the days that followed June’s general election, and has since become one of her most trusted confidants, May underlined the impression that she was relying on an ever-narrower circle of backers.
As for Fallon, he had admitted making a clumsy pass at the journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer more than a decade ago, repeatedly placing his hand on her knee. Hartley-Brewer insists she was not distressed; but rumours of other, similar incidents are rife at Westminster.
To some MPs, it all seemed rather slight – but the leader of the house, Andrea Leadsom, told MPs on Monday, after allegations emerged in the weekend papers, “if people are made to feel uncomfortable then that is not correct”.
As for the consequences, she said: “In the case of staff, they could forfeit their jobs. In the case of members of parliament, they could have the whip withdrawn and they could be fired from ministerial office.”
The question preoccupying MPs and parliamentary staffers now is whether more resignations will follow. Damian Green, May’s friend and de facto deputy, has robustly defended himself against claims by the journalist and Conservative activist Kate Maltby of making unwanted advances towards her.
His allies say he will provide text messages to an investigation the prime minister has ordered that will support his protestations of innocence. But the government has not said whether the investigation has started – and the naming of Green brings the scandal closer to Downing Street.
The sleaze row has come at a delicate moment for May, who is being buffeted almost daily by the realities of having to govern without a steady majority in parliament.
Wednesday’s humiliation was Labour’s victory in a vote to compel the Brexit secretary, David Davis, to publish the 58 Brexit impact studies his department has carried out. That comes soon after reversals on universal credit, social housing and the public sector pay cap.
Jeremy Corbyn’s party has got sharper at the job of opposition and Tory rebels feel little loyalty to the woman who led the Conservatives into the “strong and stable” general election campaign that lost them their majority.
May is widely regarded at Westminster as lacking the power to disrupt the delicate balance between remainers and Brexiters at her top table, by carrying out the reshuffle some backbenchers have been vocally demanding.
So the prime minister could ill afford the sexual misconduct scandal – but even less can she afford to botch it.
Ditching Fallon is a start. But backbench MPs are asking why Stephen Crabb, the former work and pensions secretary who has admitted engaging in “sexual chatter” with a young job applicant, has not had the whip withdrawn while the claims are investigated. There are also questions about why Mark Garnier has not been suspended from his ministerial post for admitting that he called a former aide “sugar tits” and asked her to buy sex toys.
As fresh allegations emerge, May is under pressure to respond to the calls of Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader, and queen across the border for liberal Tories, to “clear out the stables”. Meanwhile, younger Tories are beginning to wonder how much more damage their party’s brand can take.
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