ANDREW PIERCE: So will Gavin Williamson now face Cabinet axe for the third time?
During his first speech as Prime Minister on the steps of No 10 Downing Street, Rishi Sunak mightily declared: ‘This Government will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.’
So it’s only understandable that many Tory MPs were taken aback when, just days later, twice-sacked minister Sir Gavin Williamson was brought back into the Government as Cabinet Office minister with wide-ranging responsibilities.
In the Commons last week, Tory MPs were privately speculating how soon it would be before the gaffe-prone Williamson skidded on another banana skin. But even his most ardent critics never thought it would be quite so soon.
For Williamson is now the subject of a bullying inquiry over a series of threatening, expletive-laden texts that he sent to the Tory party’s first female chief whip Wendy Morton.
ANDREW PIERCE: So it’s only understandable that many Tory MPs were taken aback when, just days later, twice-sacked minister Sir Gavin Williamson (pictured on October 23) was brought back into the Government as Cabinet Office minister with wide-ranging responsibilities
The 46-year-old was furious he had not been invited to the Queen’s funeral and incorrectly blamed Morton for his failure to secure tickets. He warned her ‘there is a price for everything’ and said she had chosen to ‘f*** us all over’.
The former culture secretary Nadine Dorries – whose department presided over the responsibility for the funeral – summed up the mood on the Tory benches: ‘Beyond stunned… Entitlement is a despicable quality.’
Brandon Lewis, who was sacked as justice secretary by Sunak, was also active on social media yesterday. ‘I’ve seen the impact bullying can have,’ he tweeted. Was he referring to Williamson? Almost certainly.
Why, then, did Sunak promote Williamson – a former fireplace salesman who is a poor Commons performer and not noted for his intellectual prowess?
For Williamson is now the subject of a bullying inquiry over a series of threatening, expletive-laden texts that he sent to the Tory party’s first female chief whip Wendy Morton (pictured on October 20)
For one reason: Williamson, who studied social sciences at Bradford University, is in fact a shrewd political operator.
As chief whip under Theresa May, he was known as the ‘baby-faced assassin’ for his combination of guile, charm and bullying to enforce his will.
The presence of his pet tarantula Cronus (named after the king of the Titans who came to power by castrating his father) in a glass box on his desk certainly added to his air of menace.
Just as he had done with May and Boris Johnson, Williamson cunningly stuck like a limpet to Sunak in the Tory party’s summer leadership contest against Liz Truss.
Former chief whips know where the political bodies are buried, the pressure points to press, and the inducements to offer to swing voters – and Sunak had significantly more MPs backing him than Truss. Williamson made sure he took the credit.
‘He’s got the largest brass neck in Parliament. He’s absolutely shameless at smarming up to the candidate he thinks will win,’ said one Tory MP.
‘Trouble is, he is good at [building support] and whether it was Theresa, Boris or Rishi, they all owed him.
‘By the way, the WhatsApp messages to Wendy Morton were nothing compared to the abuse and threats he sent us when he was chief whip. But he thinks he’s still the chief, hence the sense of entitlement.’
This sense of power and self-importance explains why Williamson thought he could bully Morton, who had been chief whip for only days, while he had done the job for 18 months. He did it so well that May promoted him to defence secretary in November 2017.
However, after he took the post, it became rapidly clear he was out of his depth.
It earned him the nickname Private Pike after the simpering weakling in the Second World War sitcom Dad’s Army. He lived up to the moniker in 2018, by saying Russia ‘should go away’ and ‘shut up’ at the height of the Salisbury poisoning.
Military boffins must have collectively breathed a sigh of relief when May sacked him in May 2019 for leaking information from a top-secret meeting of the National Security Council, where ministers had discussed the possible security threat from Chinese telecoms firm Huawei.
His frontline career should have sunk but he was brought back as education secretary. Here, too, he was a disaster.
He was criticised over school closures during the Covid pandemic and the shambles over an algorithm that standardised students’ GCSE and A-level results.
Johnson sacked him and when he was knighted in March, many Tory MPs told me it was a reward for remaining loyal. ‘It will do nothing to enhance the public’s view of our discredited honours system,’ said one.
After being given yet another chance by Sunak, it’s notable that Williamson does not have a department to run.
‘His job is to be Sunak’s eyes and ears in the ministerial corridors and to spot potential flash points,’ said a Whitehall source. Today, though, it’s Williamson himself who is a potential flash point.
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