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3 February 2021

The dunce of Westminster

Once tipped for the highest office, Gavin Williamson is floundering as Education Secretary – and young people are paying the price.

By Martin Fletcher

One of the great mysteries of Boris Johnson’s government is how Gavin Williamson has survived so long as Education Secretary. Labour regularly demands his resignation for failing a generation of schoolchildren during the Covid-19 pandemic. Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat leader, calls him “the worst education secretary in living memory”. Asked to grade cabinet ministers, even Conservative Party members ranked him bottom in the ConservativeHome website’s latest survey, with a satisfaction rating of minus 35.9.

Mary Bousted, the leader of the National Education Union (NEU), which has more than 450,000 members, told me: “Teachers have no confidence in him. They regard him as hopelessly and terminally incompetent, and they just expect from him poor decisions made on inadequate evidence which will make their already hard lives even harder… The teaching profession hold him in contempt.” In a poll of 6,000 teachers, 92 per cent said he should step down.

He is mocked by political cartoonists, panned by columnists and taunted by presenters. “What would it take for you to resign?” Piers Morgan asked him repeatedly on Good Morning Britain in January. “What grade would you give yourself?” Nick Robinson asked him on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. A Times leading article described him as “by far the worst performer in an underpowered cabinet”. He may be a Yorkshireman, but even the Yorkshire Post called him “clueless” and “the Chris Grayling of the current cabinet”. He is frequently likened to Frank Spencer, the hapless 1970s sitcom character.

It is not hard to see why Williamson has become the target of such opprobrium. In terms of school days missed, exams cancelled, learning lost and life chances spoiled, there is no precedent for the educational carnage of the past year. And while the pandemic is obviously not Williamson’s fault, he must take much of the responsibility for the government’s flawed decision-making, constant U-turns, failure to plan ahead and scapegoating of officials.

There was last August’s exams fiasco, when Williamson stubbornly ploughed ahead with English exam watchdog Ofqual’s ill-fated algorithm for grading students in lieu of A-levels and GCSEs.

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“No U-turn, no change,” he insisted, until the moment 39 per cent of A-level teacher assessments in England were downgraded, hitting those pupils from poorer backgrounds hardest. He was forced into a humiliating retreat, causing chaos at universities, which suddenly had to absorb thousands of new students. He blamed Ofqual, whose chairman Roger Taylor and chief regulator Sally Collier both resigned. So did Jonathan Slater, the Department for Education’s highly regarded permanent secretary. Williamson did not.

[see also: School closures further isolate a lonely generation – and the effect on children could be disastrous]

Then there was the equally farcical attempt to reopen schools in January. Before Christmas, Williamson had threatened legal action to prevent some London schools closing early on health grounds. Even after reports about the new highly transmissible Covid variant had been published, he insisted that schools outside London should reopen at the start of the new term on 4 January. They did so, only for Boris Johnson to close them again that same night.

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This meant millions of pupils had a solitary day at school, helping spread the virus after a four-week lockdown. Teachers and head teachers, exhausted after months of depleted staffing, suddenly had to deliver “3-5 hours of high-quality remote teaching daily” having spent the holidays preparing, at the government’s behest, for the introduction of lateral flow testing.

The litany of failures goes on. The Department for Education has failed to provide adequate free school meals during lockdowns. It has failed to provide laptops, tablets or internet connections to enable roughly a million disadvantaged children to be taught online. It has belatedly reversed its earlier position that there was no need for secondary pupils to wear face masks in schools. It has once again cancelled A-levels and GCSEs, and has yet to produce a viable alternative.

Nicholas Soames was one of many senior Tories dismayed by last August’s exams debacle. “What could have been in the Prime Minister’s mind that led him to appoint so mere, so unreliable, so wholly unsuitable a man to one of the most important jobs in government,” he tweeted, with the hashtag “#ACatastrophicmisjudgementWilliamsonMUSTGO”.

The strange thing is that Williamson was, until not so long ago, considered one of the rising stars of the Conservative Party.

Interviews with several of his Tory colleagues leave the impression of a man who is extremely hard-working, energetic and – sometimes – charming and entertaining. They speak admiringly of his political skills, his ability to gauge the political weather, and how seamlessly he has transferred his loyalty to three starkly divergent Conservative prime ministers while metamorphosing from Remainer to committed Brexiteer. “That demonstrates a near genius for a politician,” said one. “Who else has been able to do that?”

But they also describe him as Machiavellian, a Francis Urquhart-style practitioner of Westminster’s darker arts; a political obsessive with few outside interests; a minister who throws tantrums, makes needless enemies and can be puerile and intimidating. One former colleague used the term “bipolar” and called him a “sublime liar”, adding: “He’s a fucking flawed character.” Most also agree he was far better suited to running the whips’ office, which he did very well under Theresa May, than to steering a big, front-line ministry such as education through the worst pandemic in a century.

There was a time when Williamson was talked of as a future prime minister himself, but not any longer. Like Icarus, driven by hubris and ambition, he has flown too close to the sun, and is now being badly burned. “He’s made some crass decisions about his own future for which he’s now paying a humiliatingly heavy price,” said a former MP who knows him well. “He’s not up to the job, and it was stupid of him not to realise that.”

***

Williamson was born in Scarborough in 1976. His father, Ray, worked as a council planner. His mother, Beverly, was a job centre careers officer. Both were Labour supporters. “My mum and dad don’t agree with me on politics, but they gave us everything a child could want – love, time, home, encouragement not to join the Tory party,” he told the broadcaster Iain Dale. “But,” he added, “it’s the Conservative Party that gives people the best chances in life and creates opportunities”.

Overcoming a childhood stammer, he went to a comprehensive, Raincliffe School, then Scarborough Sixth Form College. As a teenager he did work experience with Scarborough’s Tory MP, John Sykes, who signed him up as a party member. After studying social sciences at Bradford University, he was elected national chair of Conservative Students, since renamed Conservative Future, for 1997-98.

Williamson says he was then offered a job by the Conservative Party, but preferred to “get a real job in the real world” and became a manager with Elgin & Hall, a northern fireplace manufacturer. He continued to nurture political aspirations, however. Aged 24, he won election to North Yorkshire County Council. Fellow councillors remember him as hard-working, enthusiastic and ambitious.

Williamson left Elgin & Hall abruptly in 2004. The reason only became apparent years later, when he was defence secretary. He had had a “flirtatious” relationship with a married colleague. It never went further than kissing, he insisted in a carefully worded confession to the Daily Mail, which was designed to pre-empt a Guardian scoop. It was a “dreadful mistake”. He said he was fortunate to have been forgiven by his wife, Joanne, a primary school teaching assistant whom he had met at sixth form college. Joanne gave birth to the first of their two daughters, Annabel, the year of the fling; the second, Grace, was born two years later.

Williamson subsequently became managing director and co-owner of Aynsley China in Stoke-on-Trent, then managing director of an architectural design company, NPS North West, but remained active in his local Conservative association. He fought Blackpool North and Fleetwood for the Tories in 2005, coming second to Labour. He was then selected to fight the safe seat of South Staffordshire in 2010 and was elected with a majority of 16,590.

Williamson’s political creed, to the extent he has one, was described by a fellow MP as “workers’ conservativism”. He used his maiden speech to complain that “we do not sing enough the praises of our designers, engineers and manufacturers” and invoked “the Victorian spirit of ingenuity and inventiveness that made Britain such a vibrant country”.

He has a weak speaking voice and was not a great parliamentary performer. But he had a powerful patron in Patrick McLoughlin, then chief whip, and was an assiduous networker who set up a dining club for the 2010 Tory intake – the “Curry Club”.

He rose rapidly, with his northern, state school background and Midlands seat doubtless recommending him to David Cameron, the Tories’ modernising new prime minister. Within a year, he was parliamentary private secretary (bag-handler) to Hugo Swire, the Northern Ireland minister (Swire’s wife Sasha called Williamson a “slime ball” in her recently published diaries). Within three years, he was PPS to Cameron himself.

“I needed a Hoover of gossip who lived and breathed Westminster – with legs so hollow that he or she could spend hours drinking on the Terrace and eating in the tea rooms,” Cameron wrote in his memoirs. “In Gavin Williamson I found that person. He was likeable, fun and different, with the face of a 23-year-old researcher and the mind of a wizened whip. He would try to lighten my mood with stories or quotes about what MPs had been getting up to. ‘Which Tory minister has had carnal relations with a Labour MP?’ he once asked me as he wandered into my office.”

Williamson voted Remain in the 2016 EU referendum. “I doubt whether he had very strong views either way, but he was Cameron’s PPS. He also thought they were going to win,” a senior Conservative told me.

But Cameron lost, defeated by Boris Johnson and his fellow Leavers. He resigned, and Williamson instantly joined Theresa May’s leadership campaign as her parliamentary manager. “I told Gavin Williamson he should go and help her, and I was amazed by the speed with which he took over and ran her campaign,” wrote Cameron, who subsequently secured him a CBE for political and public service.

***

Did Williamson’s switch show dexterity, or opportunism? He told his local paper the Express and Star: “Everyone’s favourite was Boris Johnson. I just couldn’t see it. I knew Theresa was by far the best person for prime minister. She had the right tools for the job. Everyone told me I was wrong and that she couldn’t possibly win, but I sensed the mood of the country. People were looking for someone who is a serious politician who can make tough decisions in challenging times.”

A parliamentary ally of Williamson’s told me: “He just didn’t think Boris was a fit and proper person to be prime minister.” Another observed: “He read the political map very well… He took a gamble and backed the right person.”

In the event, Johnson never joined the race, having been stabbed in the back by Michael Gove, who launched his own leadership bid. That left May battling Gove and Andrea Leadsom. Williamson defied convention by enlisting most of the Tory whip’s office in May’s campaign, ran a very professional operation and cajoled 60 per cent of Tory MPs into voting for her in the second round.

The new prime minister swiftly purged almost all Cameroons from her cabinet, but rewarded Williamson with the chief whip’s job just weeks after his 40th birthday. Comparisons were drawn with Edward Heath, who became chief whip at the age of 39 and went on to be prime minister.

[see also: How Priti Patel became unsackable]

“He was one of the really good chief whips,” said a former Conservative MP. Williamson relished political intrigue, knew every MP’s strengths and weaknesses and had May’s ear. “He’s very good at absorbing every little detail about MPs, then filing it away and potentially using it against them,” said another old colleague.

He also cultivated an air of menace and was dubbed “the baby-faced assassin”. In his office he kept a pet tarantula, Cronus, named after the Greek deity who usurped his father and then ate his own children, and observed that it was a “perfect example of an incredibly clean, ruthless killer”. He favoured “a carrot-and-stick approach”, he said. “Personally I don’t much like the stick, but it’s amazing what can be achieved with a sharpened carrot.”

His greatest service to May came in June 2017 when she lost her Commons majority after foolishly calling a general election. He rallied the shocked prime minister, then flew immediately to Belfast to secure the support of the Democratic and Unionist Party’s ten MPs with the help of a £1bn bung to Northern Ireland. “It was one of the most exciting things I had ever done, an opportunity to make a bit of history. My job was to keep Jeremy Corbyn out,” he said.

Months later, after May’s disastrous speech to the annual party conference that October, he scotched a back-bench plot to remove her by publicly identifying Grant Shapps, a former party chairman, as its ringleader.

***

What happened next caused widespread astonishment. Michael Fallon was forced to resign as defence secretary that November following a sexual harassment allegation, and Williamson succeeded him in one of the four great offices of state. At 41, he was the youngest ever defence secretary. He had no ministerial experience, and no military background beyond a brother in the RAF and his ownership of a Falklands War-era Land Rover.

“May believed, probably rightly, that he got her the leadership and made her prime minister and must be rewarded,” said one former Conservative MP, though others suspected some political shenanigans had taken place.

“All was going swimmingly, then came this madness of making him defence secretary,” the former MP added. “It’s one of the toughest jobs because the military and senior civil servants don’t trust politicians. You’ve got to have a Rolls Royce brain like Malcolm Rifkind, or a great personality like Michael Portillo, or be a military man like Ben Wallace, to be successful.”

Williamson’s most notable achievement during his 18 months at the Ministry of Defence was securing a £1.9bn increase to the defence budget following an acrimonious battle with Philip Hammond, then chancellor. Williamson assiduously briefed and leaked. He persuaded James Mattis, the US defence secretary, to issue a warning that France could overtake the UK as Washington’s closest ally. The contest became so personal that a Hammond ally dubbed Williamson “Private Pike” after the Dad’s Army character.

Despite that victory “he was not viewed in a very positive light”, said a senior military source. “He was seen as self-seeking and ambitious… using the MoD as a vehicle to get on and up.”

His tenure was also punctuated by some excruciating moments. He talked of hunting down and killing British citizens who joined Isis before they returned home (“a dead terrorist can’t cause any harm to Britain”). Following the Novichok poisonings in Salisbury in 2018, he told Russia to “go away and shut up”. His mobile phone went off while he was speaking at the despatch box. During a meeting with service chiefs he reportedly said of May: “I made her – I can break her.”

***

In the end May broke him. She was furious that Williamson’s threat to dispatch an aircraft carrier to the Pacific had caused China to cancel a trade mission led by Hammond. Shortly afterwards, in May 2019, she sacked him for leaking details of top-secret National Security Council deliberations on Huawei’s proposed role in building Britain’s 5G network. He strenuously denied the charge, and a well-placed source told me he may have simply confirmed what a journalist had learned elsewhere. But, the source added: “[May] probably thought to herself, ‘What have I done appointing this person who is so out of his depth?’”

By way of an epitaph, Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor, wrote that Williamson had been “too quick to seek his own political advantage, too interested in his own future, too entertained by the dark arts of Westminster”.

The wilderness must have been excruciating for a political junkie with few outside interests beyond walking his dog and collecting prime ministerial Toby Jugs, but he was not there long. Within three months, May was gone too. Without Williamson’s talents as chief whip, her Brexit agreement had been defeated three times in the Commons.

[see also: Why sacking incompetent ministers like Gavin Williamson isn’t always a good idea]

There was a time when Williamson might have sought to succeed her, but a former colleague told me that he had come to realise by then that No 10 was “not within his grasp”, and that he would do better to serve the next prime minister as a “Metternich figure… pulling strings behind the scenes”.

He had also metamorphosed into a committed Brexiteer – as defence secretary he had even asked his officials to produce ideas for celebrating “Independence Day”. “He’s a respecter of democracy. Once the decision had been made by the people, he got behind it,” an ally said.

In the leadership contest of July 2019, Williamson served as the unofficial chief whip for Johnson – Cameron’s nemesis and the very man whose leadership aspirations Williamson had opposed three years earlier. “After Theresa’s dreadful Brexit negotiations the terms of trade had changed,” a former MP explained. Williamson duly deployed his persuasive powers to help Johnson secure a handsome victory over Jeremy Hunt. By way of reward, Johnson restored him to the cabinet in the role of education secretary, though he had few obvious qualifications for that post either. Thanks to Covid-19, the job would prove the ultimate poisoned chalice.

***

Eighteen torrid months later, Williamson still has his defenders. They argue that the pandemic has disrupted education on a scale not seen since the Second World War, and that he has faced impossible decisions in a brief that directly impacts millions of people’s lives. They argue, with some justification, that he is sometimes blamed for decisions made by No 10, and that he is responding to scientific advice that keeps changing.

“There are no good options, just horrible ones, and you have to pick the least horrible,” a source close to Williamson told me. “Anybody doing that job would find themselves in the same position as Gavin,” said a Tory peer. “Apart from health secretary, education secretary is one of the toughest jobs at the moment.”

Williamson’s supporters point out that he has a wife who works at a school and two teenage daughters facing exams, and he feels the same frustrations as any other parent. They say he has scarcely taken a day off since last spring, though they add that he is very resilient and “steeled by gallons of Yorkshire tea”. An MP pointed out that he is one of only two education secretaries to have attended a comprehensive and further education college, adding: “There’s a lot of snobbery and piss-taking about him.”

Amid all the controversies, Williamson has also launched a commendable but little-noticed drive to make it easier for those from a poorer background to attend university, and to improve vocational training for those that do not. “Clearly, one thing after another has gone wrong,” Robert Halfon, the Conservative chair of the Education Select Committee, told me. “However, I think Gavin’s support for further education and skills should be recognised, and I think it will have a long-term impact on education.”

That said, it is difficult to see how Williamson can recover from his present plight. His political capital is exhausted. It is very hard for a politician to change a narrative once it takes hold. And it is striking how little support he retains even among his fellow Conservatives. “I have no idea how he holds on to any cabinet position,” one told me. “I just don’t think he’s up to the job,” said another.

Which leads back to the question: why has Johnson not sacked him? Some say he daren’t because Williamson knows where the bodies are buried, but there can’t be many Johnsonian “bodies” left that we do not already know about.

A more likely explanation, beside the fact the country is in the middle of a terrible crisis, is that, for now at least, the former whip serves a very useful role as the nation’s whipping boy and prime ministerial lightning rod. “He’s a useful frontman for unpopular decisions that Boris Johnson is taking but doesn’t want to own,” says the NEU’s Mary Bousted. “He’s a firewall against the Prime Minister himself taking responsibility.” 

[see also: Why don’t politicians apologise?]

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This article appears in the 03 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s tragedy