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‘Baby-faced assassin’ Gavin Williamson handed Michael Fallon’s old job as MPs fear who could be next for the chop in …

Theresa May rushed to plug a hole in her Cabinet[1] today after her ousting of Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon over sexual harassment claims left other ministers fearing they will be next. In an extraordinary twist, Sir Michael’s job went to a man known as “the baby-faced assassin” for his ruthlessness — Tory chief whip Gavin Williamson, 41. The Standard has learned that Sir Michael’s sudden resignation last night was instigated by Mrs May.

A friend of the ex-Defence Secretary said emphatically that it was “her idea”, despite an exchange of letters saying Sir Michael had made the decision after reflecting on his conduct.

Sir Michael Fallon said his past behaviour may have fallen below the high standards expected of him (EPA)

Mr Williamson, who coasted into the newly vacant role, was reported to have played a key role in pulling the rug from under Sir Michael by advising the Prime Minister yesterday that more embarrassing allegations about him might be made. That led to a meeting with Mrs May where Sir Michael, 65, was persuaded to fall on his sword. After days in which the Government has been battered by allegations of sexual impropriety, it left some senior Tories worrying that by forcing out Sir Michael, Mrs May had made other Cabinet members more vulnerable to accusations of harassment.

One minister said: “If someone has to resign when the only public allegation is that someone put his hand on a knee 15 years ago, that is a very low bar indeed. Where does that leave others who might be accused of similar offences?”

Theresa May ordered a meeting in which Sir Michael, 65, was persuaded to fall on his sword (Sky News)

In other changes, Mr Williamson’s deputy Julian Smith moves up to be chief whip, in charge of discipline among Tory MPs at Westminster. He in turn is replaced by Esther McVey, a former TV presenter and minister, who was on the backbenches after a spell out of Parliament.

The big winners in the changes were Mr Williamson and his ally Mr Smith, who both became MPs just seven years ago in 2010.

Cabinet will suffer from losing bruiser

Sir Michael Fallon’s ousting threatens to further destabilise Theresa May’s Cabinet, writes Nicholas Cecil. The former defence secretary was deployed as a political bruiser at home to fight Labour and abroad to defend Britain’s corner on the world stage. A loyalist, he was a heavyweight in a Cabinet riven by Brexit feuding.

He ruthlessly attacked Labour leaders, warning voters in 2015 not to back Ed Miliband because he had “stabbed his own brother in the back” and claiming that Russian president Vladimir Putin would welcome a Jeremy Corbyn government. He led Britain’s campaign to crush Islamic State and hit back against Russian military actions. After entering the Commons in 1983, he held a string of government positions.

In recent years, the Sevenoaks MP, 65, was often sent out on the morning airwaves to try to smooth away the latest crisis, including during Mrs May’s disastrous snap election in June. His fall from grace began with a report this week that he had touched the knee of journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer in 2002. She brushed it off as “mildly amusing” and he apologised at the time, but Sir Michael could not guarantee No 10 that there would not be other allegations and was forced out.

Nicholas Cecil The new Defence Secretary, who famously keeps a pet tarantula in his office, is the youngest in history. He was one of the “two Gavins”, along with No 10 chief of staff Gavin Barwell, who became hugely influential in Downing Street after Mrs May lost her majority in June.

Today Mr Williamson left Downing Street with a military officer and got into a waiting car. Shortly afterwards, Ms McVey walked into No 10 without speaking to reporters. Meanwhile, senior Tory Ruth Davidson has said the “Boys’ Own locker-room culture” in Britain’s political system has to stop.

The Scottish Conservative leader said the “dam had been broken” on inappropriate sexual behaviour by politicians. Talks are now under way for a UK-wide code of conduct for elected officials and political staff.

MoD crisis deepens

The deep crisis in UK defence has just got a lot deeper with Sir Michael Fallon’s departure. The politician, who had been in charge at the Ministry of Defence for more than three years, was due to deliver a major defence review in six weeks’ time.

Now the new person at the helm has to deliver a package of cuts and reforms with the fortunes of defence and the armed forces at their lowest ebb since the end of the Cold War. Money is short, ships are being laid up, exercises cut back or cancelled, morale is wobbly in key areas, overall personnel numbers are down and so is recruiting. Senior officials have been resigning.

Last month Tony Douglas, in charge of defence equipment and support, walked out. After two years, he felt he had achieved little in the tangled world of defence procurement, according to friends and colleagues. Put bluntly, the sums in defence for all the plans, programmes and policies in train for the next 10 years just don’t add up.

The MoD says “contingencies” have been put in place against currency fluctuation but nothing sufficient is in place to meet the soaring cost of at least half a dozen items of equipment from the US, from Apache and Chinook helicopters and F35 aircraft for the two new aircraft carriers. Something has got to give. The problem is that too many big-ticket items have been ordered which the nation can barely afford.

This will be the 13th defence review since 1945. The services have been offering up the cuts and “adjustments” they think they can get away with — a process known in the past as salami-slicing. However, it now looks as though the defence crisis has gone way beyond salami-slicing and that the whole apparatus needs a comprehensive overhaul and new strategy.

It is likely that Sir Michael knew this. Robert Fox Ms Davidson told BBC radio: “The dam has broken on this now, and these male-dominated professions, overwhelmingly male-dominated professions, where the Boys’ Own locker-room culture has prevailed, and it’s all been a bit of a laugh, has got to stop.”

She is calling for action at Westminster and in the Scottish Parliament. “When we look at some of the house clearing that … needs to happen in the next few weeks, months and years ahead, are we going to say that we didn’t need some pretty big shovels for the Augean stable?” she added. Education Secretary Justine Greening, the Minister for Women and Equalities, said political parties needed to decide what “modern” standards of behaviour were now expected.

“There’s quite possibly a debate within the public about what those standards should be and there may be different groups of people who think that, actually, standards should be at different levels,” she said.


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