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2 November 2017

Michael Fallon was, quite literally, shameless. I’m glad he’s gone

Opportunities for schadenfreude on this sort of scale don’t come along every day.

By Jonn Elledge

I suggested that I could write something about Michael Fallon at 10 o’clock this morning. Since then, we’ve had so much news – an interest rate rise, a questionable half-reshuffle, the discovery that the MP for South Staffordshire believes himself to be Francis Urquhart – that the fall of the other disgraced former defence secretary, as he shall henceforth be known, already feels like yesterday’s news.

But opportunities for schadenfreude on this sort of scale don’t come along every day, so it would be remiss to let this one pass without making the following observation: Fallon was a vicious, ghastly attack dog of a minister, and his fall should be welcomed by anyone who isn’t a card-carrying member of the Conservative party, and probably a fair few people who are.

It’s not the manner of his fall that’s led me to this conclusion (I’m not touching that trashfire with a 10 foot pole), but everything that came before. For the last few years, Fallon has conducted himself, quite literally, without shame. Whenever the government wanted to push a questionable new attack line – the sort of message that comes dangerously close to a slur, and risks making the messenger look as bad as their target – Fallon could always be relied upon to deliver it.

In the run up to the 2015 election, for example, it was Fallon who was wheeled out to warn that, just as Ed Miliband had “stabbed his own brother in the back to become Labour leader”, so he would stab the UK in the back to become prime minister.

The bizarre choice of words led to a lively and depressing debate about whether Fallon’s comments amounted to a coded anti-Semitic attack – a dog whistle, once much heard in Weimar Germany, suggesting that those dastardly Jews just can’t be trusted. It almost certainly wasn’t anything of the sort – but that Fallon was willing to make such a nasty personal attack, with such little care for how he might look as he did it, suggested that he wasn’t exactly over-burdened with qualms.

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He was at it again in the following year’s mayoral election, describing Sadiq Khan as a “Labour lackey who speaks alongside extremists”. Just as in 2015, you could never quite be sure Fallon hadn’t just said something deeply, horrifically unpleasant. It didn’t help that, two days after the election, Fallon pointedly refused to tell the Today programme that London would be safe under Khan’s care.

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The point, I hope, is clear: Fallon was a man who was never afraid to get nasty, if it would accomplish a political goal. Over recent months, he’s been one of the most visible defenders of Theresa May’s government, precisely because he has been so willing to support whatever the line happened to be that day, even if it was the exact opposite of whatever it happened to be yesterday. This backfired on him hilariously on Channel 4 back in May, when Krishnan Guru-Murthy tricked him into slamming what he implied was Jeremy Corbyn’s statement about the causes of Islamic terrorism. In fact, they were the words of Boris Johnson.

This loyalty, no doubt, made Fallon a valuable ally to a stumbling prime minister. But loyalty is not always, in and of itself, a good quality, and Fallon’s willingness to be nasty in support of his government has left the impression that he holds no higher principle than that his party should be in power. It means that, for a man with such obvious ambition and self-regard, his actual achievements feel ultimately a bit thin.

Fallon’s behaviour in office have doomed him to the role of eternal sidekick: the henchman, not the principal. And as a henchman, his fall will pass largely unnoticed. Nobody cares that he’s gone: we care only for what it tells us about what might happen next.