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Williamson pays the price

Williamson pays the price

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Gavin Williamson has been forced to leave the cabinet for the third time since 2019. Why did he have to go and what questions does it raise about the prime minister’s judgement?

Gavin Williamson first came to the public’s attention as defence secretary when he made a playground comment about a major international enemy.

“Frankly, Russia should go away and shut up.”

Gavin Williamson in 2018

Just over a year later, he was gone…

“Good evening. The prime minister has sacked the defence secretary Gavin Williamson, accusing him of leaking information from a meeting of the National Security Council last week.”

BBC News

He then returned to the cabinet as education secretary and was later sacked for his failure to deal with the impact Covid had on schools and exams.

“Few will be surprised that Gavin Williamson was sacked by Boris Johnson. He presided over an excruciating 2 years of education where he had to shut schools and colleges and cancel exams. He did have to contend with the unprecedented impact of Covid but all the same, few gave him high marks for his handling of the crisis.”

Five news

And now he’s been forced to resign from Rishi Sunak’s cabinet, less than two weeks after being appointed as the minister with responsibility for exciting things like the Geospatial Commission and the Government Property Agency.

“Now to our top story, a Government Minister, Gavin Williamson has resigned amid continued bullying allegations. Williamson who served as minister without portfolio said in his resignation letter that he refuted the allegations about his conduct, and he vowed to clear his name.”

GB News

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Some of the allegations against Gavin Williamson date back to his first cabinet job as chief whip, when he was responsible for getting Conservative MPs to do what the government wanted them to do.

“I got the impression that he loved salacious gossip and would use it as leverage against MPs if the need arose… He also on one occasion, we had an MP who had got a few financial problems and some financial help was given. It wasn’t a great amount, but I do remember him asking me to give the MP in question the cheque. And he waved it under my nose and said make sure when you give him this cheque, he knows that I now own him.”

GB News

Those claims came from Anne Milton who was speaking to Channel 4 News and worked with Gavin Williamson as his deputy in the whip’s office.

It was the latest in a string of stories that began to drip out after Tortoise’s political editor Cat Neilan revealed that a Conservative MP had formally complained about Gavin Williamson’s behaviour.

“I was told that a formal complaint had been submitted by Wendy Morton, who was the chief whip under Liz Truss. And that the complaint was about a series of messages that she had received from Gavin Williamson when he was a back bencher. They were described to me as vile and threatening and that they had misogynistic undertones, I was also told, although I was unable to stand it up for the original story, that one of the messages was, ‘There is a price to pay for everything’.”

Cat Neilan

At the time, a friend of Gavin Williamson told Tortoise that he strongly refuted the allegations.

But then, the messages were leaked to the Sunday Times.

In them he complains about not being invited to the Queen’s funeral.

He uses abusive language, patronises Wendy Morton, and writes, quote, “there is a price for everything.”

Rishi Sunak said the messages were “unacceptable”… but Downing Street insisted he still had “full confidence” in Gavin Williamson.

And then, more allegations emerged

“As I understand it, that former civil servant who alleges that Gavin Williamson, whilst defense secretary told this person to slit your throat and throw yourself out of the window has formally reported this behaviour to the parliamentary watchdog, so this is now the second formal complaint. As we understand, Wendy Morton, the former chief whip has issued a complaint into the parliamentary watchdog.”

Sky News

In the end, Gavin Williamson had to go.

In his resignation letter, he said he had become a distraction from Government work which is you know, a fairly well used phrase. But I think, in this case, it’s true and it was a big problem for Rishi Sunak, just 2 weeks into his premiership. He’s just done his third PMQs, and of course all the questions were about Gavin Williamson, they would have been much tougher if Gavin Williamson had not resigned. 

Cat Neilan

Keir Starmer: Does he regret his decision to make him a government minister?

Rishi Sunak: Mr Speaker, I obviously regret appointing someone who has had to resign in these circumstances.

Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak at PMQs

“Before Rishi Sunak became prime minister, there was a degree of skepticism among Conservative MPs as to how political he was. And I think that is being shown to be a valid concern now. Not only did we have a U Turn on whether he would attend COP, which is probably the only thing that people remember about his appearance in COP. We’ve also got not 1 but 2 Ministers already within the first fortnight of his premiership about whom there are questions. One has resigned, Gavin Williamson has resigned, Suella Braverman of course, the row about her pre-dated the row about Gavin Williamson. In PMQs, she was sitting next to him looking very happy. And perhaps presenting or trying to present a sort of more united front. It felt to me as though a signal was being sent. Suella Braverman is going nowhere. But the problem is that, as the stories about Gavin Williamson recede, now that he has resigned, there are likely to be more stories and more pressure on Suella Braverman. And then we could see yet another instance where Rishi Sunak’s political judgement is in question.”

Cat Neilan

This episode was written by Lewis Vickers and mixed by Sean Collins.