UK Prime Minister Theresa May was forced to replace her Defense Secretary on Wednesday as a growing sexual harassment scandal added to the pressure on a government already struggling with the fallout from Brexit.
May named a key Conservative Party fixer, Gavin Williamson, to fill the post vacated after the resignation of Michael Fallon, who admitted his behavior towards women had “fallen short” during his career.
Fallon was the first minister to resign after a swirl of allegations swept British political circles in recent weeks.
Williamson, 41, has been the government’s Chief Whip since 2016, in which role he was responsible for enforcing parliamentary discipline within the party.
His rapid elevation to a top Cabinet position has prompted questions in some quarters over his qualifications and whether, in effect he promoted himself, since the chief whip advises the Prime Minister on appointments.
Williamson is known for his loyalty to May, commentators say, but does not have a military background or prior ministerial experience.
Shortly after Williamson’s appointment was announced, Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston tweeted: “There are times when offered a job that it would be better to advise that another would be more experienced & suited to the role.”
May’s former chief of staff, Nick Timothy, tweeted in defense of the move, saying that Williamson, who was May’s campaign manager in the last election, “has been a brilliant chief whip.” He added: “The idea he appointed himself is absurd. She rates him.”
The Ministry of Defence tweeted a statement from Williamson in which he said its work was vital to combat “rising threats in a worsening international security situation.”
May announced Wednesday that UK party leaders would meet next week to discuss a new process to handle sexual abuse allegations, as she faced questions in the House of Commons over her handling of concerns raised in the past.
The crisis has emerged at a time when May already faces deep divisions within her government over Brexit and questions over her future as the Conservative Party leader after June’s general election left her without an overall majority.
In a sign of the political tumult, the House of Commons on Wednesday night passed a motion requiring the government publish secret documents detailing the economic impact of Brexit on various parts of the economy.
The government has so far been resisting pressure to release the information, arguing it would undermine its Brexit negotiating position. It is due to resume talks on Britain’s EU departure in Brussels, Belgium, next week.
Fallon: ‘Fallen below’ high standards
Fallon’s departure came after a journalist, Julia Hartley-Brewer, confirmed he had repeatedly placed his hand on her knee at a dinner in 2002.
Hartley-Brewer has said she did not regard the incident as harassment, but Fallon hinted in a statement Wednesday evening that further allegations could be forthcoming.
“In recent days allegations have been made about MPs’ conduct, including my own,” he said. “Many of these have been false, but I realize that in the past I have fallen below the high standards that we require of the armed forces, which I have the privilege to represent.”
Speaking later to the BBC, Fallon said that what had been “acceptable 15, 10 years ago is clearly not acceptable now.”
Reacting to Fallon’s resignation on Twitter, Hartley-Brewer said: “I doubt my knee was the reason.” No further allegations have yet been made public against Fallon.
In a letter accepting Fallon’s resignation on Wednesday, May praised his “diligent service.”
She said: “I appreciate the characteristically serious manner in which you have considered your position, and the particular example you wish to set to servicemen and women and others.”
Earlier Wednesday, May ordered an investigation into her deputy, Damian Green, amid allegations of unwanted advances toward a female writer. Green has denied the harassment claims.
Last week, she ordered an inquiry into international trade minister Mark Garnier, who reportedly admitted to a newspaper that he asked his personal assistant to buy sex toys and used a sexual slur against her.
The Prime Minister’s office has said all allegations of sexual harassment are to be taken seriously and has urged victims of assault and harassment to report it to the police.
CNN’s Kara Fox and Simon Cullen contributed to this report.