Politics and Governance in the UK

by Michael Moran

Update 59, January 2018 - The eruption of scandal

It is almost a year since I posted updates on this site. The reason for departing from the usual practice of posting at six monthly intervals is that the 3rd edition of the book was reprinted in July 2017 with a long preface that updated things in the light of the extraordinary developments of the first half of 2017 – notably Mrs May’s abandonment of the fixed term Parliament Act, the ensuing catastrophic Conservative electoral campaign, and the enforced creation of an informal coalition between Mrs May’s government and the Ulster Democratic Unionist Party. My preface was dated 17 July 2017; then, the ink was barely dry on the Conservative’s deal with the DUP. The best bet at that date was that parliamentary politics would be dominated by the problem of holding together the informal coalition. In reality, with the exception of one thunderous outburst (see Update 60 below) the tensions with the DUP have been quite successfully suppressed. Mrs May must have anticipated many difficulties of Parliamentary and Cabinet management as her new government presented its ‘Queen’s Speech’ – the outline of proposed legislative measures for the new Parliament – on 21 June 2017. She may have anticipated, or feared, Cabinet resignations as the tensions over Brexit boiled over within the Conservative Party. What she can hardly have anticipated was that before the end of the year she would have lost two Cabinet members to sexual scandals – and in the process lost two members of the Cabinet who were vital to the stability of her government.

Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, resigned on 1 November 2017. His resignation letter admitted – in the strange code that these letters habitually use – that ‘I accept that in the past I have fallen below the high standards that we require of the Armed Forces.’ What this amounted to was the admission that he had made unwanted physical advances to women amounting to sexual harassment. The damage from Fallon’s disappearance went beyond the loss of a senior minister. He was one of the Government’s most accomplished media performers – known sometimes as the ‘Minister for the Today Programme’, the cabinet minister who could be relied on to defend the government’s record in the flagship early morning news programmes.

The second resignation was a more complex affair. Damian Green, First Secretary of State (in effect the Deputy Prime Minister) was ‘asked to resign from the government following breaches of the Ministerial Code’, to quote his own carefully phrased letter of resignation to the Prime Minister of 20 December 2017. The loss of Green was a great blow to the Prime Minister: as her deputy he was critical to the job of managing the Brexit process within the Executive; and as a longstanding political ally he was perhaps as close to a ‘friend’ as prime ministers ever allow themselves. Formally, Mr Green’s resignation was not about an accusation of sexual harassment – on that, the investigation in effect returned a ‘not proven’ verdict. Nor was it about the charge that pornography had been discovered some years earlier by the police on his own office computer. It was on the narrower grounds that in the course of the investigation he had made misleading statements about his knowledge of the police discovery of pornography.

It is one of the peculiarities of political resignations that take place after revelations of sexual impropriety that the impropriety itself is rarely cited as the reason for the resignation. Even in the most famous sexual scandal in British government in the last century – the resignation of John Profumo from the Cabinet in 1963 – the reason given for the resignation was that he had lied to the House of Commons, not that he had an affair with a woman who had also had an affair with a Russian diplomat. But if every minister who has misled the House of Commons, and every minister who has misled a Cabinet Office inquiry, were as a result removed from office then the ranks of government would soon thin out.

The difficulty with overtly enforcing resignation on grounds of sexual impropriety, especially in British politics now, is that the notion of what improper sexual conduct amounts to continues to change. It is well known that the Westminster scandal was more or less a side effect of sexual harassment scandals in other areas of society, especially in the media and entertainment industries. And those scandals are plainly due to changes in the balance of power, notably between the sexes. Simply, women who in the past felt they had no option but to put up with harassment now feel empowered to, at the least, protest.

In the Westminster case the scandal resembles the expenses scandal of some years ago: that is, it arises from the gap between changing wider societal values and those dominant among the Westminster elite. (The wider significance of scandals in the British system is summarised on p. 391 of Politics and Governance in the UK).

If we take the long view, we can see how what constitutes a ‘sexual scandal’ changes. Sixty years ago to be revealed as gay was career death. Homosexual relations between men in private were decriminalised in 1967, but it was not until 1984 that the first MP (Chris Smith) felt able to acknowledge publicly that he was gay. At the start of 2017 two members of Mrs May’s cabinet were openly gay. Perhaps half a century ago an adulterous affair was damaging to a career. Now, as the colourful private life of Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, shows, fathering a child with a mistress is no bar at all to high office.

But the resignations of Fallon and Green are not the end of matter. At the time of writing there are still unresolved cases of alleged harassment at Westminster. Moreover, as the power of the male-dominated Westminster elite continues to be challenged, the notion of what constitutes ‘harassment’ and sexual impropriety continues to change. At the moment, when faced with challenge, the commonest defence is to try to create a distinction between ‘consensual’ and ‘non-consensual’ relations. How far this can be maintained in the long run is uncertain, when ‘consensual’ relations take place in circumstances where there are great inequalities in power and resources between the sexes. All we can say with certainty is that the age of sexual scandal in British politics is not at an end.