What are the political repercussions of Michael Fallon’s exit? The former Defence Secretary became the first minister to quit his post over allegations of inappropriate behaviour, saying he had “fallen below” the standards required of the Armed Forces that he represented as Secretary of State.
Friends of Fallon have told the press that it wasn’t just the 17-year-old story of him touching Julia Hartley-Brewer’s knee but the fear that other inappropriate flirtations would come to light. Nonetheless, one consequence of his exit is that the bar has been set for what constitutes an unpardonable offence, and if the allegations against Mark Garnier and Damian Green are proved to be true, both will surely have to quit their posts as well.
As far as the stability of the government in the House of Commons, it doesn’t change that much. As for the stability of Theresa May herself, that’s a different matter. One Conservative MP reflected last night that the politicians who would have to go in the end would be overwhelmingly “veterans from the old days”, that is to say, people from the 1997 intake or before. But, of course, the PM’s few friends in politics are, for the most part, Conservative MPs from the 1997 intake or before.
It’s true that the problem is systemic and on both sides, as Helen and I explore in our piece in this week’s magazine, but there is a crucial difference as far as the political toll for the leaders themselves go. To put it bluntly, even before June, describing Jeremy Corbyn as “running the Labour party” was a statement that had to be immediately qualified. His writ never ran into the institutional structures of the party.
May has been at the top of the Conservative establishment for two decades. Lisa Nandy scored a good hit on this at PMQs yesterday and there may be more of the same to come. (Not to say that if Corbyn had enjoyed the level of control he has now that Labour’s structures would necessarily be any better. It’s just that unlike May, the question of if he could have done better simply doesn’t arise.)
Although the fear that if the government collapses Jeremy Corbyn will become the next prime minister keeps Tory MPs from bringing the whole house down no matter how bad things get, watching her political allies get felled one by one while facing questions over her own culpability could well tip the balance as far as Theresa May’s willingness to carry on goes.