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7 July 2017

Gavin Williamson: the cunning Tory chief whip with a tarantula on his desk

He's tipped as a future party leader, but can this rising star maintain control?

By George Eaton

On the morning of 26 June, as the Conservatives finalised their parliamentary deal with the DUP, it was not Theresa May but her Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson, who signed the agreement. For the 41-year-old, whose role prohibits him from speaking in parliament, it was a rare moment in the spotlight. As Williamson shook hands with his DUP equivalent, Jeffrey Donaldson, May stood sternly behind them (leading some to liken her to a witness at a marriage ceremony).

Williamson got his big break as David Cameron’s parliamentary private secretary from 2013 to 2016. The South Staffordshire MP forged the relationships that enabled his ascent. Giles Kenningham, Cameron’s former head of political press, told me: “He understands the heartbeat of the party, he has a forensic knowledge of what’s going on, he puts in the work in the tea rooms and the bars. He knows everyone.”

When Cameron resigned, Williamson privately vowed to do all he could to stop Boris Johnson entering No 10. He swiftly identified May as the best vehicle available for the task. After seeking Cameron’s permission, he phoned the then home secretary and offered to assist her bid. Within a day, he was invited to become her parliamentary campaign manager. “I was absolutely flabbergasted, but I accepted immediately,” he later recalled.

For May, the antithesis of the clubbable Williamson, the contacts gifted by her new recruit proved invaluable. When the new Prime Minister took office, Williamson was rewarded with the post of Chief Whip, a few weeks after his 40th birthday. In a mark of his stature, he attended the daily 8.30am meeting of May’s inner circle (unlike Philip Hammond and Boris Johnson).

Becoming Chief Whip was a notable achievement for an MP elected just six years earlier. Williamson was raised by Labour-supporting parents in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, and he went to a comprehensive school. He studied social sciences at Bradford University and is married to Joanne, a former primary school teacher. They have two daughters.

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Before entering parliament, Williamson was the co-owner of a Staffordshire pottery business and, later, was the managing director of an architectural design firm. After unsuccessfully contesting the Labour-held seat of Blackpool North and Fleetwood in 2005, he won South Staffordshire in 2010 and increased his majority to 22,733 this year.

In the BBC2 docudrama Theresa v Boris: How May Became PM, Williamson was played by the actor Daniel Casey. He was portrayed as a ruthless, Malcolm Tucker-esque Machiavel. “I’ll fire you, then I’ll fucking castrate you, all right?” he warned one Tory MP who failed to vote for May in the first round of the leadership contest. The impression of menace was enhanced by the appearance of a pet tarantula.

Williamson keeps the spider in a glass box on his desk. Cronus, as it is known, was named after a Greek god who castrated his father and ate his children. The parliamentary authorities demanded that Williamson expel the spider, but his team convinced them otherwise. “You have to look at different ways to persuade people to vote with the government,” Williamson has said. “Cronus is a perfect example of an incredibly clean, ruthless killer.”

In a hung parliament, Williamson will need to deploy all means available. MPs must be forced through the division lobby, whatever their health or circumstances, and limiting rebellion is not just desirable but essential. Though the DUP deal has provided a modicum of stability, the government has a working majority of just 13 – only seven Tory dissenters are required to overturn it.

Williamson passed his first test, securing the passage of the Queen’s Speech by 323 votes (a full Tory turnout) to 309. But the success of the Labour MP Stella Creasy’s abortion amendment demonstrated the power that backbenchers wield. Tories say that Williamson will be aided by his strong relations across the House (Labour MPs even exchanged texts with him during last summer’s challenge to Jeremy Corbyn).

At a time when the Conservatives are once again riven by the European question, Williamson (who backed Remain) is respected by both wings. “He’s very perceptive. He’s very good at grasping the main issues,” Bill Cash, a venerable Eurosceptic, told me. Nicky Morgan, a leading Tory Remainer, said: “Time spent in Gavin’s company is always interesting and entertaining. We’ve had our share of frank conversations but it’s always done on the basis of equals.”

In 1955, Ted Heath became chief whip at the similarly youthful age of 39. Williamson, who colleagues say has ambitions far beyond his present position, is already spoken of by some as a future Tory leader. “He has all the powers of patronage and the whips’ office machinery behind him,” noted the former Tory MP Jerry Hayes. “He could be formidable.” As Williamson knows, he will need all his political cunning to emerge unscathed from this febrile parliament. 

This article appears in the 05 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania