Readers will remember Gavin Williamson, who appeared from nowhere to become a Conservative MP (there is nothing wrong with that), but who then, despite having no obvious talent other than ingratiating himself with the exceptionally vain, moved effortlessly up the food chain. Toadying to David Cameron led to his becoming the then prime minister’s parliamentary private secretary in 2013, a job he held until Cameron strolled blithely away from the mess he had made after his referendum gamble failed. Williamson, blessed with a low cunning, decided in the 2016 leadership contest that the safest pair of hands in the Conservative Party appeared to be Theresa May’s, and made himself central to her campaign to become prime minister. When she won by default he had his reward: he became chief whip.
That was only the start. His fellow MPs regarded him as having exerted his influence as chief whip to torpedo, over allegations of improper behaviour towards women, the ministerial career of Michael Fallon, the then defence secretary and now one of those who has suspended disbelief to back Boris Johnson. As the decision was taken to dispense with Fallon’s services, Williamson (who in an earlier incarnation working at a fireplace company had a fling with a junior colleague) told May the ideal person to fill the vacancy was, in fact, Gavin Williamson. Perhaps from weakness, or because she felt a debt was still outstanding from her leadership campaign, May gave Williamson his wish, and a remarkable promotion.
The pompous Fallon was not popular, but Williamson’s ruthless manoeuvring unsettled even some of the most cynical observers of the game. Over the ensuing 18 months he threw his weight around gauchely, appearing more and more out of his depth. The support of colleagues was seldom forthcoming. “I don’t think he has any friends,” an ex-minister told me. Another said Williamson’s ambition was unquantifiable.
Williamson came unstuck last month when his former patron sacked him because of what she said was “compelling evidence” he had leaked information from a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC). He had been offered the chance to resign but rejected it, prompting those remarks about his uncouth behaviour. He maintained he was not the leaker, histrionically swearing his innocence on the lives of his daughters, a formula usually uttered by cornered criminals in the cheaper sort of television detective drama. A source close to Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, once compared Williamson with Private Pike from Dad’s Army. Williamson did not take these humiliations well; luckily for him, the road to recovery – though not, one fears, to redemption – soon opened up.
When offering his services to May in 2016 it was – as he loudly told anyone who wanted to listen – because he saw her as the most effective way to stop Boris Johnson being prime minister. How ironic, then, that Williamson currently devotes his waking hours to seeking to bring about the very outcome that, three years ago, he abominated. He acts as the Johnson campaign’s chief whip, using what colleagues have called “bully boy tactics” to bludgeon colleagues into supporting his man. Why? Has Johnson suddenly acquired habits of probity, responsibility, judgement and decency that force even former sceptics such as Williamson to concede they were wrong about him? Or was the humiliated and rampantly ambitious Williamson prepared to put his own lack of principles to the cause of a man he, perhaps correctly, thinks will be the next prime minister, that he might renew his interrupted ascent of the greasy pole?
Johnson, whose own cynicism is boundless, won’t be remotely disturbed if the latter is the case. So long as Williamson assists his victory, he probably couldn’t care less what his former adversary really thinks of him, or what crass methods he uses to further their pact of ambition.
Johnson is doubtless as amused by Williamson’s Uriah Heepish qualities as he is by his parodically serviceable behaviour. Ministers describe Williamson telling them that unless they were among the first 50 to sign up for Johnson they could kiss goodbye to their careers. Williamson reportedly had the idea of telling MPs supporting Johnson to use their smartphones to photograph their ballot papers, to prove they were telling the truth; the 1922 Committee’s returning officers banned phones from the ballot room, provoking embarrassed denials by MPs for whom, in the service of their master, lying now comes naturally.
Accused of lying over the NSC leak, Williamson also told the media that Johnson was not hiding from scrutiny – before Johnson proceeded to hide from the Channel 4 debate and then, with equal cowardice, from media hustings at Westminster.
Williamson is even reported to have claimed that he is returning to the Ministry of Defence. If true it would be deeply unfair to Penny Mordaunt, who has made an effective start in her job as his successor, and hardly a good advertisement for a Johnson regime’s commitment to women’s advancement. Of course, if the performance in 2016 is any guide, Johnson or cronies acting in his name may well by now have promised every cabinet job to four or five people. That is the sort of disappointment with which those who believe they can trust Boris Johnson will have to learn to live.
Williamson is apparently on good terms with the DUP – who will be even more essential to Johnson if he wins than they were to May – and colleagues think he should prepare himself for a spell as Northern Ireland secretary. Wherever he lands, his actions set the tone for an administration likely to be nasty, brutish and quite possibly short.
This article appears in the 19 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Bad news