To be close to three consecutive prime ministers is an extraordinary feat. Occasionally, senior Whitehall officials pull it off. The late Sir Jeremy Heywood served no fewer than four (Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May). Lord Powell of Bayswater was indispensable to Margaret Thatcher, but also advised John Major and Blair.
For elected politicians, however, it is vanishingly rare for an individual to become close to three successive prime ministers. Edward Heath managed it: as Anthony Eden’s chief whip, and a senior cabinet minister under both Harold Macmillan and Sir Alec Douglas-Home. But this reflected an exceptional talent for political survival.
Now, a man regarded by many in the political and media class as an idiot, a has-been, or both, is about to achieve precisely the same hat-trick. Step forward, Gavin Williamson.
The Conservative MP for South Staffordshire, you may recall, was acrimoniously sacked as defence secretary in May, after allegedly leaking details to the Daily Telegraph of a National Security Council discussion on Huawei’s role in building the UK’s 5G data network.
Though Williamson reportedly swore his innocence on his “children’s lives”, May insisted in her letter of dismissal that there was “compelling evidence suggesting your responsibility for the unauthorised disclosure”. Williamson parried furiously on Sky News, claiming that the leak inquiry conducted by the cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, had been a “witch hunt from the start” and that he had been forced through “a kangaroo court with a summary execution”.
When I asked Sir Mark after his Institute of Government lecture on 13 June what it had been like to have his professional integrity impugned in this way, he was phlegmatic. “Of course, it wasn’t a comfortable period for anyone involved. But I think you have to conduct these inquiries with integrity. It was a serious matter and the prime minister reached the conclusion that she did on the basis of the evidence that professional investigators provided, and I think that’s the only way to proceed. You have to play by the book.”
Of course, Williamson’s whole point – driven home with fierce conviction – was that the book had been tossed aside, as he was systematically stitched up. But his cause was not helped by the series of gaffes he had made at the Ministry of Defence. Claiming bombastically that Brexit could “enhance the UK’s lethality”; telling Russia to “go away and shut up’; accidentally activating Siri on his iPhone at the Commons despatch box (“I’ve found something on the web for Syria,” it chirped); and scuppering the Chancellor Philip Hammond’s planned trip to China in February with a threat to deploy a warship in the Pacific: such incidents, and others like them, had earned Williamson the nickname “Private Pike” in Whitehall.
One very senior MoD figure admits to having “night terrors” that “Gavin might one day return” to the department. Tobias Ellwood, the defence minister, has told friends that working for him was one of the worst experiences of his life.
Whether or not the specific cause of Williamson’s exit was fair, his political obituaries generally characterised him as an over-promoted bungler who had been courting the sack for months. His replacement, Penny Mordaunt, was quickly hailed as a breath of fresh air and a future party leader. There was even lurid speculation in the press, encouraged by Labour, that he might face two years in prison, if charged under the Official Secrets Act.
Spared that fate, he was, nonetheless, widely expected to be no more than a footnote to the final, sorry chapters of the May premiership. “I thought he was finished,” says one long-time friend. “I couldn’t see him coming back from this one. It was so damning and final, and because it involved national security it was as bad as it could be.”
Except that there is a radically different way of interpreting Williamson’s career – one in which exile from government in the past two months has been a brief, anomalous blip in a remarkably prolonged career at the heart of government, and one from which he is about to recover in spectacular fashion.
Let us start at the end of this particular story – or near the end – and venture into the engine room of Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign: newly-energised by his strong showing in Thursday’s first round of votes by Conservative MPs.
James Wharton, a Conservative MP until the 2017 election, is running the show, generally credited with the new professionalism with which the former foreign secretary has approached the contest (compared to his abortive bid in 2016).
Here, in spirit at least, is Sir Lynton Crosby, Johnson’s guru in two successful London mayoral elections, who recently told his protégé in no uncertain terms that the time had come to get serious, and now speaks to him on the phone at least once a day.
Here is Zac Goldsmith, Johnson’s fellow Old Etonian, advising him more closely than ever, and tipped for a top job in his friend’s prospective government.
And here – a goofy phoenix rising from the ashes – is Williamson. Every successful leadership campaign needs an unofficial chief whip: a ruthless operational manager who loves nothing more than totting up names, promising rewards, and threatening future punishment to MPs wondering whether to support Johnson.
In recent days, Williamson has been overheard making dark jokes to waverers about their chances of joining the “payroll” – the collective noun for ministerial jobs – under the new prime minister. “I love Gavin Williamson,’ says one Cabinet ally. “He knows everything. He loves the game. He’s brilliant at it.”
Ah yes, the game: now we’re at the rub. From the start of his career in government, Williamson displayed an instinctive grasp of the psychology of power. As David Cameron’s parliamentary aide between October 2013 and July 2016, he was – to an extent underappreciated at the time – one of the few people the then PM regarded as truly indispensable.
Cameron noted in him an “Alan Whicker-like quality” that encouraged people to tell him their innermost hopes and secrets with little prompting. He often described Williamson as a “people person”. Others familiar with his prowling presence in Westminster in these years use choicer language (“a ruthless political killer” being one verdict). He was always on duty, permanently vigilant, never dropping his guard.
These skills, honed under Cameron, qualified him perfectly to be May’s campaign manager in the 2016 leadership contest. After Michael Gove’s sensational betrayal of Johnson persuaded the latter not to stand, Williamson pounced, securing more than 50 per cent of the available votes for May in the first parliamentary round and more than 60 in the second (May was declared winner by default, when Andrea Leadsom withdrew from the final ballot of Tory members – cancelled since only one candidate was left standing).
It was natural for the new prime minister to appoint her kingmaker as chief whip – a role he took to with gusto. As one close colleague recalls, Williamson was almost uncannily suited to the role: “The reason some people say that Gav is demonic is that he has all the attributes you need as a chief whip. He is not afraid of confrontation – or of telling people of the consequences they will face if they cross him.” A certain camp menace was added to this image by his ownership of a tarantula called Cronus.
Having inherited a small majority from Cameron, May depended upon Williamson absolutely to secure every parliamentary victory. When she squandered that majority in the 2017 snap general election, that need became desperate: she turned to her chief whip to broker the deal with the Democratic Unionist Party that kept her minority government afloat (more or less).
It was only a slight exaggeration to say that May was Williamson’s creation and – in theory at least – could be destroyed by him if they fell out. That is certainly how he interpreted their relationship. “He was ultra-loyal,” says one former No 10 official. “But he was also acutely conscious that he had this great hold on Theresa that would be his insurance policy if things got choppy.”
And they did. When Williamson, aged 41, became the youngest defence secretary in November 2016, he started to fancy his chances as a future prime minister. But mastery of the dark arts does not necessarily translate into readiness for the political spotlight: in this case, running a high-profile department – a notorious knot of bureaucratic, diplomatic and patriotic sensitivities – during a period of severe financial retrenchment and pronounced anxiety about the UK’s place in the world.
Williamson’s rows with the Treasury – and Hammond personally – frequently spilt into the public realm, and his gift for private arm-twisting was not matched by an aptitude for public spin wars. The military top brass was grateful for his support, but often despaired of his judgment and language.
He clashed frequently with Sedwill, who is national security adviser in addition to his duties as cabinet secretary – a growing animosity that (according to Williamson) fatally contaminated the Huawei leak inquiry. Convinced he had been set up, Williamson turned on May with instant, uncompromising savagery. His private reaction to being sacked was straightforward: “I will destroy her.”
Did he? Here are the facts: Williamson had made a point of staying close to the DUP after negotiating the confidence-and-supply agreement that kept May’s government afloat after the 2017 election.
The Unionists had always been critical of her deal with Brussels and voted against it. But – after Williamson’s sacking – their critique became more pointed, and (crucially) more personal. On 13 May, Arlene Foster, the DUP’s leader, went for May’s jugular: “We have a prime minister, frankly, who doesn’t have the vision for the United Kingdom post-Brexit that we all want to see.” Ouch. Or as Williamson was perhaps thinking: gotcha.
Eleven days later, May announced in an emotional speech at the podium on Downing Street that she would resign as Conservative leader on 7 June. By then, several of her most senior cabinet colleagues had made clear that the game was up. But this was more than a statement of the obvious. There was a technical reason, too.
In April, the executive of the 1922 Committee – the representative body of Tory backbenchers – had voted 9-7 against a rule change that would have allowed a fresh vote of confidence against May before December. But on 22 May the committee took a very different decision, delegating its chair, Sir Graham Brady, to go and see the PM in search of clarity – the implication being that failure to quit forthwith would be followed by a hastily fixed rule change, another vote of confidence by Tory MPs, and the dreadful prospect of being sacked by her own side (as Iain Duncan Smith had been in 2003).
Even the notoriously stubborn May got the message. Two days after the committee’s decision to issue an ultimatum, she resigned.
In one sense, the PM was finally capitulating to the inevitable. But she had only done so after being comprehensively outplayed on the chess-board of Conservative Party rules. Who was really on the other side of the board?
Senior Conservative sources say that the hand of Williamson is unmistakable in these manoeuvrings. Before his summary dismissal, the 1922 executive was against a rule-change; afterwards, it was suddenly persuadable. Not that Williamson left his prints anywhere near the decision. In this backroom plot, he was, as so often, Macavity the Mystery Cat – which is to say, “not there”.
Now, having handled Cameron’s daily political life, delivered the premiership to May and helped to bring her down, Williamson is busily enthroning another prime minister. As one Johnson-supporting MP puts it: “It’s extraordinary to see him right back in the thick of it. He knows the party inside out. He has this amazing attention to detail and organisation. It’s like he’d never been sacked at all.”
What is Williamson’s secret? How – even after a setback that would spell the political death of less cunning politicians – does he retain his access-all-areas pass to the innermost circles of his party?
Comparisons with Peter Mandelson’s role in the New Labour years are misplaced, says one close ally. “He’s not Mandelsonian in the sense of a strategist who sees great forces at work. He’s a smart tactician. He gets people’s hopes and fears, and he’s brilliant at understanding those things. But I think a big part of Gavin’s success is also that he’s clever – but that people don’t think he is. That’s an amazing asset.”
To be underestimated is indeed (if you can handle it) a great advantage in politics: a career that is, after all, chosen mostly by narcissists and insatiable seekers of recognition. As Ronald Reagan used to say: “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
In Williamson’s case, the calculation is slightly different. Paradoxically, the caricature of a callow buffoon that hardened into orthodoxy when he was sacked has served him well, enabling him to return quietly to the engine room of what is almost certainly the next government.
As his reward, a return to his last job has been discussed in the Johnson camp. Senior officials at the MoD are preparing for the old boss to become the new boss a few weeks hence – some with considerable trepidation. What symmetry that would represent, and how swiftly so. For the politician dismissed so recently as Private Pike, justice may yet turn out to be poetic.
Photography by Getty Images