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4 March 2022

Arise Sir Gavin, knighted for services to bombast and incompetence

By not even bothering to justify why it is honouring the former education secretary, Boris Johnson’s government is laughing at us.

By Jonn Elledge

You know, there was a moment last September when I almost felt sorry for Gavin Williamson. In a fairly dull reshuffle, the overwhelming theme of which had been “the PM can’t sack X because it’ll upset Y”, removing Williamson had upset nobody at all: he had no friends to speak out for him, and no allies to help cause trouble from the back benches. Dominic Raab, a man who’d been so useless as foreign secretary that he wanted to stay by the pool as Kabul fell to the Taliban, had to be bought off with the meaningless bauble of “deputy prime minister” to stop anything nasty from kicking off; Williamson, though, could be unceremoniously dumped. He just seemed so lonely.

My sympathy didn’t last, obviously, and this week “the Queen has been pleased to approve that the honour of Knighthood be conferred upon The Rt Hon Gavin Williamson CBE MP”.

There’s been a vague bad smell hanging around the UK honours system for as long as there’s been a UK to emit bad smells at all, but generally speaking there’s been at least some attempt to justify the gongs: an honour will be handed out for “services to business”, say, or “services to drama”. No such justification was given in the case of Sir Gavin’s special K, however: so far as we can tell, he’s been knighted for services to helping everyone else on the face of the Earth overcome their imposter syndrome.

Let’s remind ourselves of some of the highlights of a political career that saw him forced out of the cabinet twice in a little over two years. In 2018, shortly after the Salisbury poisoning, the then defence secretary gave us the measure of his gravitas and statesmanship by suggesting that, “frankly, Russia should go away and should shut up”. The following year, after sensitive information regarding Huawei’s potential involvement in the UK’s 5G network mysteriously leaked from the National Security Council, the prime minister Theresa May asked Williamson to resign. He declined, on the grounds that doing so might look incriminating, so May sacked him, on the grounds that there was “compelling evidence” he was behind the leaks. This, of course, was not incriminating at all. (He continued to deny the allegations.)

This should have put an end to Williamson’s career there and then, but by the end of 2019 May was gone, replaced by a man who was willing to forgive almost anything, providing his courtiers had the correct views on whether or not he should be Prime Minister. One highlight of Williamson’s time as Boris Johnson’s education secretary was getting into a war of words with the footballer Marcus Rashford about free school meals, during which he managed to publicly confuse Marcus Rashford with a completely different black sportsman, the rugby player Maro Itoje. This looked great, obviously. Another highlight was allowing schools to open for a single day in January 2021, to ensure the maximum disruption and social mixing possible before Britain entered its third national lockdown. The most flattering reading here is that this was a Downing Street decision, but since this merely makes the education secretary look weak instead of negligent this still isn’t very flattering.

Probably the peak of Williamson’s tenure, however, was presiding over the 2020 A-levels fiasco, in which results were decided by an algorithm that disproportionately punished those from disadvantaged areas. After defending the system for days, Williamson inevitably U-turned, announcing that grades would instead be based on teacher assessment – but by then universities had rejected thousands of applicants and allocated their places elsewhere, leaving an entire generation of 18-year-olds under the impression that the education secretary had personally ruined their lives. Again, he refused to resign, and again, he was sacked – although this time it took over a year.

All this is without even getting into the fact that, to help him assert his authority in his first senior political role as chief whip, Williamson kept an actual tarantula in his office and named it after Zeus’s dad Cronus, a Titan so secure in his position that he habitually ate his own children. He was photographed after the A-levels debacle with an actual whip lying prominently across his desk, in case we’d somehow missed the message. Williamson seemed to take one look at the record of his fictional predecessor Francis Urquhart, who literally pushed a woman off a roof, and decided it was not quite comic-book villain-y enough for him.

There was a particular type of kid I remember from school, who not only compulsively lied but seemed to genuinely assume that everyone believed him: he’d say his dad was Knight Rider, say, or that he’d been at a roller disco where Jet from Gladiators had tried to get off with him. (Readers may wish to amend the references to something more generationally appropriate or less ITV.) Gavin Williamson was still that kid when he entered the cabinet, only it was no longer some lads in the playground he was lying to but the entire country. It doesn’t matter whether he believed the 2020 A-level algorithm was fair and square, or that free school meals were simply not affordable: it only matters that he thought we would believe that.

We didn’t. YouGov has rated his popularity with the electorate at just 8 per cent: the only politician recognisable to more than half of the country to rate worse was Gerry Adams, on 7 per cent. Gavin Williamson was so easy to sack precisely because he had such little support from any faction of either party or public.

Yet the government of Boris Johnson has decided to honour him anyway, and not even to bother to justify why. It’s laughing at us. And it doesn’t care that we can see.

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