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2 Nov, 2017 10:35

Westminster sex scandal: May picks new defense secretary as Fallon resigns

Westminster sex scandal: May picks new defense secretary as Fallon resigns

Theresa May has appointed a new defense secretary after the growing ‘sex pest’ scandal in Westminster claimed the scalp of Michael Fallon. He resigned from the Ministry of Defence days after apologizing for touching a journalist’s knee.

Gavin Williamson CBE has been chosen to fill Fallon's shoes. Williamson was first elected to Parliament in 2010 for South Staffordshire. He was part of the delegation that helped secure the Tory-DUP deal earlier this year. 

Williamson, the former chief whip, becomes a full member of the Cabinet for the first time. He was parliamentary aide to former PM David Cameron before taking charge of the whips’ office when May took over in July 2016.

The 41-year-old is best known at Westminster for keeping a tarantula called Cronus in a glass box on his desk, seemingly to intimidate MPs who have stepped out of line. The creature is named after the Greek god who came to power by castrating his own father before eating his children to ensure they did not oust him.

Williamson’s reputation for a menacing manner was reiterated at the Conservative Party conference, where he told delegates: “I don’t very much believe in the stick, but it’s amazing what can be achieved with a sharpened carrot,” according to the Guardian.

May has pushed up deputy chief whip Julian Smith to fill the role of chief whip. She has brought back former minister Esther Mcvey as deputy chief whip.

The news of Williamson’s appointment was not universally welcomed by senior Tories. Health select committee chair Sarah Wollaston tweeted pointedly that it was sometimes best to turn down jobs and advise “that another would be more experienced and suited to the role.”

As tense Brexit negotiations are due to resume next week in Brussels and fears grip Westminster that other political careers will be destroyed as the scandal widens, it is understood Prime Minister Theresa May will replace Fallon without triggering a wider reshuffle.

Fallon, the Sevenoaks MP, said he had “fallen below” acceptable standards and has since “reflected on my position.” In his resignation letter to May, he said: “A number of allegations have surfaced about MPs 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 of the Armed Forces I have the honor to represent.”

The PM responded: “I appreciate your characteristically serious manner in which you have considered your position, and the particular example you wish to set servicemen and women and others.” She also praised his “long and distinguished” career in Parliament.

Forty Tory MPs have been named in the dossier, which was compiled by Conservative Party staff about politicians against whom accusations of misconduct have been made. Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader, said it was “time to clean out the stables,” and some “pretty big shovels” would be needed to deal with the legacy of sexual harassment and abuse of power by MPs.

The scandal will further weaken May’s government, which is riven with divisions over Brexit and propped up by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Fallon was seen as a stabilizing cabinet influence. Some MPs believe the ‘sex pest’ allegations could damage the standing of Parliament in the same way the 2009 expenses scandal undermined public confidence in politics.

Fallon is the first minister to step down from May’s government in the growing scandal about sexual harassment at Westminster. Earlier this week, he admitted to inappropriately touching a female journalist. He insisted that he apologized for the incident 15 years ago, however, and that he and the journalist considered the matter closed. The journalist, Julia Hartley-Brewer, previously disclosed the incident but did not name Fallon. She said that at the time she had threatened to punch him in the nose if he did it again.

The scandal could yet spread further. Four other cabinet members were named in a dossier on MPs’ sexual behavior, circulating at Westminster in recent days. Other allegations include those against the first secretary of state, Damian Green, who has been accused of making inappropriate advances towards activist Kate Maltby. He strongly denies the claims.