Pressure mounted on U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May late on Monday after her defence secretary admitted to inappropriately touching a journalist, bringing the growing uproar about endemic sexual harassment at Westminster to the heart of her government.
Michael Fallon said he apologized at the time for repeatedly touching the knee of Julia Hartley-Brewer at a dinner 15 years ago and they had put the incident behind them. Hartley-Brewer, who said she had threatened to “punch him in the face” if he did it again, also downplayed the incident.
In an illustration of how deep the problem may go, 40 Tory lawmakers, including senior cabinet ministers, were named on a list being circulated at Westminster detailing the claims of inappropriate behavior by lawmakers from May’s Conservative Party. Fallon is the first senior figure to be named publicly.
The escalation of allegations could not have come at a worse time for the premier. She is seeking to navigate a path out of the European Union and struggling to claw back credibility after a catastrophic election result in June. She sat grim faced in the House of Commons on Monday as lawmakers debated extra action needed to protect staff.
“Parliament must take action in days, not weeks,” the leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, told lawmakers Monday. “There can be no place for harassment, abuse or misconduct in politics. Your age, gender or job title should have no bearing on the way you are treated in the modern workplace.”
May’s spokesman James Slack had earlier told reporters that the premier is “deeply concerned” about allegations about the mistreatment of staff.
“She’s clear that any unwanted sexual behavior is completely unacceptable in any walk of life and she strongly believes that those who work in Parliament are treated properly and fairly as would be expected in any modern workplace.”
Fallon has been mooted as a future prime minister and May has followed her predecessor, #David Cameron, in using the defense secretary as a trusted spokesman for her government when it’s facing negative media coverage. His office said he had apologized and considers the matter closed.
“This ‘incident’ happened in 2002. No one was remotely upset or distressed by it. My knees remain intact,” Hartley-Brewer said in a posting on Twitter after the story appeared on the front of early editions of Tuesday’s Sun newspaper. She said she has “no issues” with Fallon and doesn’t regard the incident “as anything but mildly amusing.”
Earlier on Monday lawmakers were told Parliament must take a “zero-tolerance approach” to sexual harassment and act quickly to protect staff as the prime minister sought to limit fallout from the growing abuse scandal.
New Disciplinary Regime
May proposed a set of rules to protect staff of lawmakers amid allegations of inappropriate activity and ordered an inquiry into the behavior of Trade Minister Mark Garnier — a junior minister and the first figure from her government to be touched by the scandal.
May, who is trying to seize the initiative to stop the furor destabilizing her government wrote to the speaker of the Commons, John Bercow, demanding a new disciplinary regime to deal with unwanted sexual or sexist behavior by lawmakers toward aides and colleagues.
“There must be zero tolerance of sexual harassment or bullying here at Westminster or elsewhere; whether that involves members or their staff or parliamentary staff or those working on or visiting the estate,” Bercow told lawmakers.
All the main parties were united in their condemnation of sexual harassment. “No one elected any of us to engage in sleazy, oppressive behavior,” Harriet Harman, the former deputy leader of the opposition Labour Party, told lawmakers. “It has to be stopped and now is the time to do it.”
Garnier admitted on Sunday that he’d asked an assistant to buy sex toys for him and spoke to her using a sexist term, according to the Mail newspaper. Slack confirmed the investigation into Garnier to reporters on Monday and said there were no investigations at present into anyone else.