Running for election mere months ago, British Prime Minister Theresa May’s slogan was “strong and stable government.”
The phrase sounds cruelly ironic now, with several senior members of May’s Cabinet under fire for missteps or under investigation for alleged sexual misconduct.
Even before the latest troubles, May was a beleaguered leader atop a fragile government. She faces the challenge of steering Britain out of the European Union at the helm of a government split between proponents and opponents of Brexit. And she is weakened after her gamble on a snap June election to increase the Conservative majority in Parliament backfired, leaving her with a minority government.
“We have a prime minister who has lost her authority, and her control of the classroom,” opposition Labour Party lawmaker Kate Osamor said on Tuesday, summoning the image of the government as a bunch of unruly children.
The lost lieutenant
A week of mounting crisis for May began when Defense Secretary Michael Fallon resigned on Wednesday, saying his past behaviour “may have fallen below the high standards” expected. A female journalist had accused him of repeatedly touching her knee at a function in 2002; another said he had given her an unexpected and unwelcome kiss.
Fallon had been one of May’s most stalwart lieutenants, often deployed to speak for the government in broadcast interviews. His resignation was a blow to May — made worse when she upset many Conservative lawmakers by replacing him with the widely mistrusted Gavin Williamson, a disciplinarian chief party whip famous for keeping a pet tarantula on his desk.
Fallon may not be the last minister forced out by a growing scandal over sexual abuse and harassment in British politics.
Since revelations emerged about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, researchers, political staff and journalists have begun to come forward with allegations. Several lawmakers have been suspended by their parties, and two government ministers are under investigation.
First Secretary of State Damian Green — effectively the deputy prime minister — is facing a civil service investigation after a young party activist accused him of unwanted touches and text messages. A former senior policeman also says extreme pornography was found on a computer in Green’s office in 2008 — a claim he strongly denies.
International Trade Minister Mark Garnier is being investigated over claims he sent his secretary to buy vibrators from a sex shop. Garnier has called the episode “hijinks” but conceded he may have had “dinosaur” attitudes in the past.
In a bid to stem the scandal, May and other party leaders have agreed to set up new measures to help people working in Parliament report abuse.
Blustering Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has never been known for tact, and many were surprised when May made him Britain’s top diplomat.
Now he stands accused of endangering a British-Iranian woman imprisoned in Iran with his loose talk.
The husband and employer of Nazarin Zaghari-Ratcliffe — serving a five-year sentence for plotting the “soft toppling” of Iran’s government — say she could face more prison time after Johnson told lawmakers last week that she had been training Iranian journalists before she was arrested last year.
Husband Richard Ratcliffe and the charitable Thomson Reuters Foundation say Zaghari-Ratcliffe was on vacation visiting family. They say Johnson’s statement was seized on by Iranian authorities as evidence she was engaged in propaganda against the regime.
Johnson accepted Tuesday that “my remarks could have been clearer.”
“The UK government has no doubt that she was on holiday in Iran when she was arrested last year and that was the sole purpose of her visit,” he told lawmakers in a contrite statement to the House of Commons.
The latest bad news came when it emerged this week that International Development Secretary Priti Patel held 12 meetings with Israeli groups and officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while she was on vacation in the country in August — and that she hadn’t told the prime minister or colleagues about it.
When news broke about the trip, Patel insisted that “Boris (Johnson) knew about the visit.” Her department was later forced to clarify the statement, saying “the foreign secretary did become aware of the visit, but not in advance of it.”
Patel apologized, saying the meetings “did not accord with the usual procedures.” Others went further, saying Patel was in clear violation of the ministerial code of conduct.
Steven Fielding, professor of politics at the University of Nottingham, said that in normal political times both Patel and Johnson would have been fired. But these are not normal times.
“It’s a multi-level crisis,” Fielding said. “We are left with a party that is divided over the biggest decision this country has to make, with a prime minister who has no authority and a government that has no majority in the House of Commons.”
But he predicted the government will “stagger on,” because it fears losing to Labour if it faces an election.
“They know that they are toast if they allow themselves to leave office before Brexit is finalized,” he said.