Theresa May struggles to contain sexual harassment scandal as Tories split over new Defence Secretary

Tory MPs brand the appointment of Gavin Williamson ‘disastrous’ and an ‘unbelievable failure’

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Thursday 02 November 2017 23:19
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Who is new Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson?

Theresa May is struggling to contain the fallout from the deepening Westminster sexual harassment scandal amid a major backlash over her choice to succeed disgraced minister Sir Michael Fallon and a public rift between top figures in her party.

Conservative MPs were scathing over the appointment of Ms May’s trusted lieutenant Gavin Williamson as Defence Secretary – branding it “disastrous”, an “unbelievable failure” and “her biggest and probably last mistake”.

A senior general also publicly criticised the appointment, telling The Independent it would have been better “from a defence point of view” if someone else had been given the job.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling and leader of the Scottish Tories Ruth Davidson then took diametrically opposed views over whether a “cleanout” of politics is needed — with Mr Grayling regretting Sir Michael’s departure, while Ms Davidson said it was “right”.

It comes as pressure mounted on Ms May to deal with ministers Damian Green and Mark Garnier, both of whom are subject to Cabinet Office investigations over separate allegations.

The Independent spoke to a string of Conservative MPs and ministers on Thursday who said they were “livid”, “dispirited” and angry about the appointment of Mr Williamson.

He had been Chief Whip, a job which means in usual circumstances he would have played a key role in the decision to let Sir Michael go and decide his successor.

One senior Tory MP said: “Gavin is all about making sure Gavin is in a position from which Gavin can become Prime Minister. In this instance he has been judge, jury and executioner to Fallon and he is now also the beneficiary.”

Another told The Independent that there is also anger felt towards Julian Smith, promoted from Deputy Chief Whip to Chief Whip.

He said: “They’re like parasites feeding off her weakness and using it to advance themselves. They have controlled her party intelligence and they have massively and manipulatively misled her.”

Downing Street insisted Mr Williamson had played no role in the reshuffle, adding that his appointment was totally the Prime Minister’s own decision.

Much of the dismay focused on the fact that Mr Williamson has no experience in connection with the military, let alone running a major government department.

One branded it a real “HMS Pinafore appointment” – a reference to Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera, which contains a song with the lyric: “Stick close to your desks and never go to sea, and you all may be rulers of the Queen’s Navee.”

Michael Fallon announces resignation as Defence Secretary

Criticism was not confined to Westminster, with ex-head of the British Army Richard Dannatt telling The Independent Mr Williamson is not the best choice “from a defence point of view”.

Lord Dannatt said a minister at the Ministry of Defence would have been a better option, but instead Ms May had made a “heavily political” decision.

He explained: “It is obviously heavily political in so far as she has chosen a leading lieutenant to support her in Cabinet.

“That’s fine, but I’m interested in the furtherance of our defence effort, with our budget under pressure and as Michael Fallon has started to speak publicly about the need to increase spending – I hope [Mr Williamson] quickly comes to the same conclusion.”

Gavin Williamson has been made the new Defence Secretary

He went on: “I said this morning that promoting one of the existing defence ministers would be the best outcome from a defence point of view, but I fully respect the PM’s desire to give a senior job in cabinet to a trusted lieutenant.”

A No 10 spokesman said: “Gavin Williamson was an excellent and hardworking Chief Whip and the Prime Minister thinks he will make an excellent Defence Secretary.”

The fallout came as the wider sexual harassment scandal exposed deep splits at the top of the party as to how to respond.

Ruth Davidson: "The dam has broken on this now and these male-dominated professions"

Scottish leader Ms Davidson said it is time to “clean out the stables” following Sir Michael’s departure, in the wake of an incident in which he repeatedly touched a female journalist’s knee and with further allegations expected.

She went on: “The dam has broken on this now and these male-dominated professions, overwhelmingly male-dominated professions, where the Boy's Own locker-room culture has prevailed and it’s all been a bit of a laugh, has got to stop.”

On Mr Fallon’s resignation she said it was “right for him to do so”, but later in the day cabinet minister Mr Grayling disagreed.

He said it is “not about cleaning out stables” before adding, “Actually, I very much regret Michael Fallon’s decision.”

Asked if Sir Michael had done the right thing in resigning, Mr Grayling said: “It’s very much a matter for him and his judgement,” and then went on, “... it is right and proper that we deal with the issues that have been in the headlines this week and make sure Westminster is a right and proper working environment.”

Damian Green is fighting allegations against him made by Times journalist Kate Maltby (AFP/Getty)

Meanwhile, Mr Green has instructed lawyers in response to allegations made in The Times by journalist Kate Maltby that he had made inappropriate advances to her, adding that he had “fleetingly” touched her knee during a meeting in a Waterloo pub in 2015 and a year later sent her a “suggestive” text message after she was pictured wearing a corset in the newspaper.

Mr Green has since said that any allegation that he made sexual advances to Ms Maltby was “untrue [and] deeply hurtful”.

Ms May has also asked the Cabinet Office to look into whether minister Mark Garnier broke the ministerial code of conduct in asking his secretary to buy him two sex toys, as well as referring to her in a sexual and inappropriate way.

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