If a Minister is guilty of bullying, harrassment or abuse, he should resign – or be fired by the Prime Minister if he or she is unwilling to go.
Did Michael Fallon’s conduct fall into any of those categories? We don’t know. The interview that has accompanied his resignation suggests that he may have treated other women in the way that he treated Julia Hartley-Brewer.
The facts of that matter are that he put his hand on her knee. The incident took place 15 years ago. He has since apologised. And in Hartley-Brewer’s own words, “no-one was remotely upset or distressed”.
Furthermore, not a single person has publicly come forward to date to complain about the fomer Defence Secretary’s conduct. On the evidence available, he wasn’t Sir Harvey Fallon or Sir Michael Weinstein.
The allegations convulsing Westminster in the wake of the Hollywood producer’s behaviour – that, remember, is why they have burst into riotous life – are an surreal jumble of
- The criminal (they include at least one rape claim).
- The serious (because bullying, harrassment and abuse are so – whether sexual in nature or not).
- The trivial if distasteful (such as making a pass which shouldn’t have been made)…
- …And the completely untrue (such as the false claims about Rory Stewart).
Now it may be that Fallon’s conduct, at some point in the past, fell into one of the first two categories – and that he either volunteered to quit or was instructed to do so. It may also be that more facts will emerge.
But I put to you, ladies and gentlemen of the ConservativeHome jury, that it is at least possible that Downing Street has got itself into a right old panic, and concluded that “something must be done”. If so, Theresa May has set a precedent that she may come to regret.
Admittedly, one should have some sympathy with Number Ten. It is trying to negotiate codes of behaviour that are contested in ways that they weren’t even ten years ago – with mind-bending and pocket-stretching consequences for employers, and others in positions of responsibility.
On balance, the change is for the better. For example, women should not have to put up with the kind of office banter that is mercifully less common now than it was fairly recently.
But our public culture should surely also be able to find that essential for life, let alone sanity – a sense of proportion. “The world must be peopled!” cries Benedick in “Much Ado about Nothing”. Quite so. The business of relations between the genders – or within them, come to think of it – must carry on, with all its joys, pain, blunders, hesitations and regrets.
The Prime Minister is not responsible for policing all these, for which relief she will be duly grateful. But what will she now do if some other woman comes forward to say that some other Minister made an uninvited advance the best part of 20 years ago? Or, for that matter, if a man does so?