The growing scandal over sexual harassment in British politics on Wednesday claimed its first scalp when Sir Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, resigned, saying his behaviour in the past had “fallen short”.
Sir Michael’s resignation came after a day of intensifying controversy over revelations of sexual misconduct during which the issue was raised at Prime Minister’s Questions and Theresa May convened a meeting of party leaders.
In a letter to the prime minister on Wednesday evening, Sir Michael said his behaviour had not met the “high standards” expected of the armed forces, whom he had the “honour to represent”.
“I have reflected on my position and I am therefore resigning as defence secretary,” Sir Michael wrote.
The resignation presents a new challenge for Mrs May as she grapples with the problems of leading a minority government as it navigates the process of steering the UK through intensely complicated Brexit negotiations.
A Downing Street official said Sir Michael would be replaced “in due course”, indicating his departure would not trigger a wider cabinet reshuffle.
The resignation comes a day after Sir Michael admitted that he had touched the knee of Julia Hartley-Brewer, a journalist, at a party conference event 15 years ago.
A letter from Mrs May accepting his resignation noted the “characteristically serious manner” in which Sir Michael had considered his position.
Mrs May will be hoping that Sir Michael’s departure remains an isolated event, though there will be concerns that other ministers could follow. Sir Michael is one of six cabinet members to have featured in a dossier on MPs’ sexual behaviour — of varying levels of severity — circulating at Westminster in recent days.
Earlier on Wednesday, the prime minister had referred to Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, allegations about inappropriate behaviour by Damian Green, the first secretary of state, which Mr Green strongly denies.
Sir Michael, an MP since 1983, joined the cabinet in 2014 as defence secretary under David Cameron, and established himself as one of the Conservatives’ most polished media performers. He sought to make defence spending a key dividing line with Labour, launching stinging personal attacks on both Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn. Having backed Remain in the EU referendum, he was knighted in Mr Cameron’s resignation honours last year, and kept in post by Mrs May.
Sir Michael has overseen a recent increase in military spending, making the UK one of only a handful of Nato countries to meet the benchmark of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence. However, budget overruns and the declining value of sterling have stretched his department, leading to an exceptional review of projects, timed to report before this month’s budget.