Gavin Williamson proves that it’s possible to fail your way to the top in Westminster
The carof Gavin Williamson, or Private Pike as he was known in the Ministry of Defence, shows that Westminster is run more like the mafia than a democratic institution
Gavin Williamson clearly hates it when people don’t address him as ‘Sir’, so I deliberately won’t be doing that here. I can only hope that he reads this and takes umbrage, now that he has some more time on his hands. His short-lived and utterly mystifying stint as “Minister of State Without Portfolio” has come to and end after he was forced to resign in the face of growing claims of bullying from his previous government roles.
Gavin, or Gav, to strip away as many layers of formality as possible from him, allegedly told a civil servant to“slit your throat”, while an ex-official from the Ministry of Defence said that he also told them to "jump out of the window" in what was described as a sustained campaign of bullying. Notably, in his resignation letter, Gav decided that this merited a brief apology to the recipient of his text messages, but added that he refutes “the characterisation of these claims”. In essence, he admits saying them but he doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with saying them. Just all part of the cut and thrust of frontline politics.
His appointment is yet more evidence of what looks like Rishi Sunak’s increasingly wonky political antenna. He’s already scored an own goal on his COP27 U-turn, and his controversial rehiring of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary is going as disastrously as anyone could have foreseen.
However, at least there was a smidgen of political logic to her appointment, given her base of support among the right of the Tory Party. Williamson’s cabinet role just smacks of Sunak rewarding someone for helping him out during his leadership campaign. A grace and favour job offer - and one where no-one had a clue what he was supposed to be doing.
But then that can be said of much of Gav’s career in Westminster. The former fireplace and pottery salesman became an MP in 2010 and clung to the coat-tails of Theresa May on her accession to Downing Street, becoming Defence Secretary in 2017, in a role where he was nicknamed “Private Pike” after the hapless Dad’s Army character.
Indeed, Williamson has lurched from one fiasco to another. Following his sacking from Defence over alleged leaks of secure information surrounding Huawei’s potential involvement in the UK’s 5G network (which he denied), Gav once again saw which way the wind was blowing, and lent his support to Boris Johnson during his 2019 leadership campaign.
He was rewarded with the job of Education Secretary, and under his watch school qualifications in England were thrown into chaos during the pandemic, when an algorithm for predicting results had to be abandoned in favour of teacher assessed grades. He was also criticised for calling for a ban on mobile phones in schools, many of which already had their own bans in place. In September last year he was sacked during Johnson’s cabinet reshuffle after his status in the role had become not just untenable but unbelievable.
The pattern that’s emerging here is clear. For all his flaws, Williamson’s two skills seem to be choosing a winner, and knowing where the bodies are buried. His choice of Sunak in this summer’s Tory leadership contest may have initially spelled more time on the backbenches, but it didn’t take long for Truss’ slim authority to evaporate, and incredibly, Williamson found himself back at the cabinet table, albeit briefly.
Gavin Williamson is proof, if it were needed, that in Westminster it’s not talent or hard work that is ultimately rewarded, but loyalty. The number of political peerages grew rapidly when the Tories came to power in 2010, but exploded under Boris Johnson, who dished them out like confetti to his advisors and chums. Williamson was handed his knighthood in March, despite being labelled the worst education secretary in recent memory by teaching unions.
The benches of the House of Lords have been filled to the rafters with unelected life peers - or rather, that would be the case if half of them bothered to show up. The UK now has almost 800 members of the Lords, making it the second-largest legislative chamber in the world behind the Chinese National People’s Congress. As Johnson’s frankly scandalous resignation honours list shows, Westminster is run on back-slapping and tribalism rather than honour and integrity. That’s surely the only way someone like Gavin Williamson could find himself a knight of the realm.