The Prime Minister has said he has total confidence in a minister who is under investigation for bullying after being accused of sending unacceptable texts to a colleague.
Text messages obtained by the Sunday Times show that Cabinet Office minister Gavin Williamson sent the then-Chief Whip a number of messages complaining that some Privy Councillors had not been invited to the Queen’s funeral.
Former Chief Whip Wendy Morton reported the messages to the then-Conservative Party chair Jake Berry, who informed Rishi Sunak the day before he entered No 10 that Morton had submitted a formal complaint to the party about Williamson’s conduct.
In a further development, Williamson has now been accused of telling a civil servant to“slit your throat” in what they claimed was a bullying campaign while he was defence secretary.
Rishi Sunak had previously described the messages to Morton as unacceptable, while a senior minister described them as “completely inappropriate,” and Labour has described Williamson as “not fit for the job”.
Fresh bullying allegations against Williamson
Rishi Sunak is under increasing pressure over his decision to bring his ally back into Government after The Guardian reported fresh incendiary claims about his conduct.
A Ministry of Defence (MoD) official told the newspaper Sir Gavin made the remarks in front of colleagues in a meeting, and on another occasion told them to “jump out of the window”.
The embattled minister issued a statement denying the broad allegations in The Guardian’s report but did not specifically deny using the language alleged.
“I strongly reject this allegation and have enjoyed good working relationships with the many brilliant officials I have worked with across government. No specific allegations have ever been brought to my attention.”
The newspaper said the official, who later left government, complained to the MoD’s head of human resources about the alleged incidents, but it was understood the Cabinet Office’s propriety and ethics team has not received a complaint about Sir Gavin’s conduct towards officials.
A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “The Cabinet Office has not received notice of any formal complaints about Gavin Williamson’s behaviour from his time at the Ministry of Defence or any other department.”
Conservative former cabinet minister Baroness Morgan said she had “run-ins” with Mr Williamson when he was Theresa May’s chief whip, adding: “None of this surprises me, sadly.”
Sunak thinks Williamson has ‘important contribution’ to make
The Prime Minister retains total confidence in Williamson, welcomes that he has “expressed regret” about the texts, and believes he has an “important contribution” to make to government, Downing Street said yesterday, before the latest allegations came to light.
Asked if the Prime Minister has full confidence in the Cabinet Office minister, the PM’s official spokesman said: “Yes.”
Pressed on why Williamson is still in post if Sunak views the texts he sent as unacceptable, he said: “Well, as you know, there is a process going on. I think, obviously, that’s run by the Conservative Party. So, it’s not one for me.
“I think the Prime Minister has said that it’s right to let that process happen and he welcomes that Gavin Williamson has expressed regret about those comments, which as you say he doesn’t think are acceptable.”
Sunak is under fire for bringing Williamson back into the Government despite being warned that he was under investigation for allegedly bullying former Morton.
The PM’s official spokesman said at the time Sunak “knew there was a disagreement”, but was not aware of the “substance” of the messages. Asked why he gave Williamson a government job, he said: “Obviously he thinks he has an important contribution to make to government.”
Downing Street said the Prime Minister has a zero tolerance approach to bullying inside government. On whether Sunak has spoken with either Williamson or Morton since the matter came to light, he said he was “not aware” of any talks, but would not normally get into details of private conversations.
Labour accuses Sunak of being ‘weak’
Labour leader Keir Starmer has said that Williamson is “clearly not suitable” for the job, calling his appointment a sign of how “weak” Sunak is. He has echoed earlier calls for a general election, saying he believes there is a “powerful case” for a vote.
Starmer told broadcasters during a visit to Imperial College London: “It is so disappointing that yet again we’re having a discussion about the Prime Minister’s judgement, this time in relation to Gavin Williamson.
“He’s clearly got people around the Cabinet table who are not fit to be there. That is because he was so weak and wanted to avoid an election within his own party and I think the only way out of this, because these debates are going to go on because of the weak position the prime minister, is in, I think we should say to the public, they should have a choice – do you want to carry on with this chaos or do you want the stability of a Labour Government?
“That’s why I think there is such a powerful case for a general election.”
Asked if he was calling on Williamson to be fired, the Labour leader said: “I think that the Prime Minister has got people who are clearly not fit for the job around the Cabinet table.
“Gavin Williamson has got history when it comes to breaches of security and leaking, etc. He is clearly not suitable, but the central focus really here is on the Prime Minister, to ask the question why has he put these people around the Cabinet, and the answer is because he did it from a position of weakness because he didn’t want to have an election within his own party to become leader of his own party.”
One of Williamson’s cabinet colleagues has publicly criticised the former defence secretary over the messages, describing them as “completely inappropriate,” and said it is “absolutely right” that they’re being looked into.
The Business Secretary Grant Shapps told LBC: “I think he must have been in a moment of frustration that I’m sure he regrets very deeply.
“It’s completely inappropriate to send messages like that under any circumstances, frustration or otherwise. It’s absolutely right that’s been looked into, there is a process under way.”
He added: “There is no justification for writing to anybody in those terms. From time to time I get angry emails which go across the line, you know, just as a Member of Parliament – but they shouldn’t be sent and they certainly shouldn’t be sent by Members of Parliament.”
Why was Gavin Williamson sacked as Defence Secretary in 2019?
Williamson returned to government last month having last served as Education Secretary under Boris Johnson until he was sacked in a reshuffle in September 2021. He was controversially knighted later that year.
The majority of Williamson’s tenure was during Covid, and he was widely criticised over the impact of the pandemic on schools, most notably the disruption to exams and results, and his department’s failure to provide free school meals to children during the school holidays.
Before this, his last cabinet job was as Defence Secretary, until he was sacked by Theresa May after an investigation found “compelling evidence” that he had leaked information from the National Security Committee.
In both cases, Williamson will have been entitled to a ‘loss of office’ severance payment worth around £17,000.
After it was revealed that ministers had decided to allow Chinese-based telecoms firm Huawei to provide elements of the UK’s 5G data network infrastructure despite warnings of a security risk, details of the meeting where this was discussed were briefed to the Telegraph.
An inquiry into the leak found, "compelling evidence suggesting [Williamson’s] responsibility for the unauthorised disclosure”. In a letter announcing his sacking, May said the leak was "an extremely serious matter, and a deeply disappointing one".
She added: "That is why I commissioned the cabinet secretary to establish an investigation into the unprecedented leak from the NSC meeting last week, and why I expected everyone connected to it – ministers and officials alike – to comply with it fully. You undertook to do so.
"I am therefore concerned by the manner in which you have engaged with this investigation. They have all answered questions, engaged properly, provided as much information as possible to assist with the investigation, and encouraged their staff to do the same. Your conduct has not been of the same standard as others.
"In our meeting this evening, I put to you the latest information from the investigation, which provides compelling evidence suggesting your responsibility for the unauthorised disclosure. No other, credible version of events to explain this leak has been identified."