May Seeks to Steady Ship as U.K. Moves From Crisis to Crisis

Updated on
  • She appointed inexperienced ultra-loyalist Gavin Williamson
  • At stake is whether she can steady ship ahead of Brexit talks

U.K.'s May Faces Heat on Brexit and Harassment

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May bought herself breathing space Thursday as she parachuted in ultra-loyalist Gavin Williamson to replace Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, but her respite could be short-lived.

This might not be the last high-profile casualty in the sex scandal rocking Westminster, and May’s slender majority could come under threat if lawmakers are forced to quit Parliament by revelations about their activities. Allegations of impropriety rattling the political establishment have cut across party lines.

Gavin Williamson

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

In just six weeks, May will need to come up with what promises be a politically fraught proposal to settle exit payments to the European Union and will need the backing of her lawmakers to try and bring calm and order to government.

"May is notoriously indecisive, and needs to get back on the front foot -- it could be last chance saloon for her," said Adrian Pabst, who lectures on politics at the University of Kent. "This was an opportunity to bring in bright young talent, but Williamson seems to have appointed himself. This is further evidence of her weakness."

Surprise Promotion

The promotion of Williamson, who was in charge of party discipline in the House of Commons, was surprising in some ways as he lacks defense experience. As chief whip, part of his brief was to advise May on appointments. Her office has denied that he was involved in his own appointment.

“These are decisions that are made through patronage, but, obviously, part of the role of the chief whip is to advise the prime minister about the suitability of a candidate,” Tory lawmaker Sarah Wollaston, a persistent critic of government policies, told the BBC. “I think it would be worth reflecting whether there were others that were more experienced and suitable for that role.”

Sarah Wollaston

Photographer: Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images

The forced reorganization also leaves management of disgruntled lawmakers in the House of Commons in the hands of a new chief whip, Julian Smith, who, like Williamson, backed Remain in last year’s Brexit referendum.

The appointments reflect May’s constrained position. She has been urged to clear out older ministers and promote younger talent, but reshuffles create enemies, something that she can ill afford, especially three weeks before the Budget and with the European Union withdrawal bill under scrutiny.

“Appointing Williamson as defence secretary is not a very well-judged decision; there are plenty of people in the Tory Party who are far more qualified for the job," said Matt Beech, Director of the Centre for British Politics at the University of Hull. "It shows the extent to which she is torn between two warring factions in the government -- the Brexiteers and Remainers -- so she is forced to pick from loyal lieutenants."

Weinstein’s Ghost

Fallon announced his resignation late Wednesday, referring obliquely to “allegations” about his private life. On Monday, he had admitted repeatedly touching a female journalist’s leg during a dinner. That was prompted by women speaking out about their experiences in British politics in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal in Hollywood.

“There has been this sense that people can use positions of power to demand things from others and that has got to stop,” Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson told the BBC. “It’s not actually about sex, it’s about power; it’s always been about power, and we as elected representatives have to hold ourselves to a higher standard.”

Ruth Davidson

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

May’s deputy, Damian Green, has strongly denied allegations that he made inappropriate approaches to a female Tory activist. The prime minister has asked her most senior official to “establish the facts” of the allegations.

Meanwhile, Labour on Thursday suspended lawmaker Kelvin Hopkins while he is investigated for allegations of misconduct, making him the second lawmaker in the party to be suspended in the past few days. No Conservative lawmaker has as yet been suspended for alleged misconduct.

On Wednesday, before Fallon quit, May took the pro-active step of writing to other party leaders to “come together urgently to address the issue of alleged mistreatment of staff.” They will all meet next Monday, at 5:15 p.m. to discuss “how we can work together to deliver the serious, swift and cross-party response this issue demands.”

They will need to deliver that. “One component of a really damaging scandal is that normal people must understand it,” said Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “People understood what it meant to fiddle your expenses. And they know what this means, too.”

— With assistance by Alex Morales, and Kitty Donaldson

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