Sir Gavin Williamson: why did he get knighted, why is he a sir - Matt Hancock Whatsapp texts and resignation

During the pandemic, Sir Gavin reportedly accused teachers of seeking an ‘excuse’ to avoid working

According to the most recent batch of leaked messages from Matt Hancock, reported by the Daily Telegraph, Sir Gavin Williamson accused teachers of looking for an "excuse" not to work during the Covid pandemic.

In a message sent on 1 October 2020, Hancock congratulated the then-education secretary on his choice to postpone A-level exams for another few weeks.

“Cracking announcement today. What a bunch of absolute arses the teaching unions are,” the then health secretary wrote. Sir Gavin responded: “I know they really really do just hate work.”

Earlier that year, Sir Gavin messaged Hancock asking for his help in securing personal protective equipment (PPE) for schools so they could not use it "as a reason not to open". He added: “All of them will but some will just want to say they can’t so they have an excuse to avoid having to teach, what joys!!!”

But who is Sir Gavin Williamson, and why exactly is such a contentious politician - once described as the “worst education secretary in history” - a sir? Here is everything you need to know.

Why is he a ‘sir’?

Williamson was knighted in March 2022 as part of the 2022 Special Honours for Political Service. However, his new title was not welcomed by many.

The knighthood was awarded to Williamson by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, despite a ministerial record that includes being fired as defence secretary for allegedly leaking secure information. As Education Secretary, Williamson came under fire for his management of the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on education providers, in particular his handling of the 2020 exams confusion.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said at the time that the knighthood came as a “surprise”, and described Williamson’s time in office as “one of endless muddle, inevitable U-turns, and even threats of legal action to override local decisions”.

Gavin Williamson attends the opening day of the annual Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham in October 2022 (Photo: OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)Gavin Williamson attends the opening day of the annual Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham in October 2022 (Photo: OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)
Gavin Williamson attends the opening day of the annual Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham in October 2022 (Photo: OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

People would be "outraged” by the decision, said Lib Dem education spokesman Munira Wilson, who added: “The only award Gavin Williamson should be given is the one for worst education secretary in history.”

Bridget Phillipson, the Labour Party’s shadow education secretary, said the award showed "utter contempt" for pupils and school staff. In 2021, scientists accused Williamson of jeopardising the health of hundreds of thousands of pupils, warning that completely reopening schools and universities “without robust mitigation measures” was “reckless.”

What is his political experience?

But Williamson’s knighthood had long been predicted, thanks in part to his loyalty to the prime minister; Williamson oversaw Johnson’s successful bid to replace Theresa May as Conservative leader in 2019.

Williamson, the MP for South Staffordshire since 2010, served as chief whip under May, providing him extensive insider knowledge of the parliamentary party’s procedures, leading to suspicions that a knighthood may keep him loyal.

In November 2017, May promoted him from chief whip to defence secretary. But just over a year later, she sacked Williamson, citing "compelling" evidence that he had leaked information from a national security council meeting over Huawei’s role in the UK’s 5G network.

Two months later, he was appointed education secretary by new PM Boris Johnson, although he was widely regarded as the worst education secretary in recent memory by unions and opposition parties.

What is his current role?

Williamson left Rishi Sunak's Cabinet at the end of 2022, admitting that complaints about his behaviour had turned into a "distraction", and declaring his intention to "step back from government" while a complaints procedure into his conduct was completed.

Before his resignation, Williamson served as Minister of State without Portfolio. The ministerial role, also known as constitution minister, assists the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster with public appointments and government communications.

The role of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster includes as part of its duties the administration of the estates and rents of the Duchy of Lancaster, the private estate of the British sovereign.

The principal purpose of the estate is to provide a source of independent income to the sovereign, and consists of a portfolio of land, properties and assets held in trust for the sovereign.

Williamson has been the Member of Parliament for South Staffordshire since 2010, a role which he continues to serve.

What did he allegedly say in ‘abusive’ texts?

Towards the tail end of 2022, Williamson resigned from Rishi Sunak‘s Cabinet, admitting that claims concerning his behaviour had become a “distraction” and announcing his decision to “step back from government“ while a complaints procedure into his conduct was completed.

Williamson faced an investigation over a series of abusive and threatening messages he was alleged to have sent to the then Tory chief whip complaining he had been excluded from the Queen’s funeral.

Williamson, who was a backbencher at the time, accused Wendy Morton of using the death of the monarch to “punish” senior MPs who were out of favour with Liz Truss’s government.

The Sunday Times obtained messages from Williamson to former Tory chief whip Morton, which concluded with him saying: “Well let’s see how many more times you f*** us all over. There is a price for everything.”

In the messages, Williamson complained it was “very poor” that privy councillors – senior politicians who formally advise the monarch – who “aren’t favoured” by then Prime Minister Liz Truss had been excluded from the funeral at Westminster Abbey.

Morton repeatedly insisted that his claims were unfounded and that the Government had been allocated an “extremely limited” number of tickets, most of which went to members of the Cabinet.

Gavin Williamson walking in Westminster, LondonGavin Williamson walking in Westminster, London
Gavin Williamson walking in Westminster, London

Williamson retorted: “Well certainly looks it which think is very s*** and perception becomes reality. Also don’t forget I know how this works so don’t puss (sic) me about. It’s very clear how you are going to treat a number of us which is very stupid and you are showing f*** all interest in pulling things together.

“Also this shows exactly how you have rigged it is is (sic) disgusting you are using her death to punish people who are just supportive, absolutely disgusting. Well let’s see how many more times you f*** us all over. There is a price for everything.”

Another complaint was also reportedly submitted to Parliament's Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) by a former senior official who worked with Williamson at the Ministry of Defence.

According to the Guardian, he allegedly advised the official to "slit your throat" and on another occasion to "jump out the window."

The former official did not file a complaint at the time, but later went to the ICGS, claiming the alleged bullying had had “an extreme impact” on their mental health.