Gavin Williamson’s future in Rishi Sunak‘s cabinet is in doubt today after the Prime Minister called his expletive-laden texts to a female colleague “not acceptable”. The Sun reports that the PM refused to say if Williamson‘s position as minister of state without portfolio was safe after the full text exchange between him and the former chief whip Wendy Morton was revealed by the Sunday Times.
The minister accused Morton of excluding some MPs from attending the Queen’s funeral. In one text he wrote: “Let’s see how many times you f*** us all over. There is a price for everything.” Morton complained to the Conservative Party and Williamson is subject to a bullying investigation.
The question being asked in Westminster is what Sunak knew and when. Jake Berry, the former party chairman, has said that he told Sunak about the bullying complaint the day before Williamson was promoted. Oliver Dowden, the cabinet office minister, confirmed yesterday that this was true but said that the PM had not seen the texts.
Yet if Sunak was aware of an allegation, didn’t he have a responsibility as party leader to seek out the details? Williamson, himself a former chief whip, is skilled at making himself indispensable to political leaders and Sunak is no exception. In 2013, he became the parliamentary private secretary to David Cameron, a position in which Williamson gained a reputation as a backroom operator. After Cameron’s resignation, Williamson was an early supporter of Theresa May – at the time the candidate most likely to beat Boris Johnson – and became her parliamentary campaign manager.
May rewarded Williamson’s loyalty by appointing him chief whip when she entered No 10. “We take a carrot and stick approach,” he once boasted while in the position, adding “it is amazing what can be achieved with a sharpened carrot.”
Few were surprised he was among those marshalling colleagues to “back Boris” when May was ousted (May had no choice but to sack Williamson as defence secretary after he leaked information from the National Security Council). Or that Sunak found himself relying on Williamson’s powers of persuasion when Liz Truss’s premiership fell apart. There was criticism, however, when he returned to cabinet following his catastrophic period as Johnson’s education secretary during the Covid pandemic, for which he was sacked from cabinet a second time.
Has Williamson run out of luck? Sunak pledged “integrity and accountability” but warned MPs behind closed doors that they must “unite or die”. He may conclude the political price of losing Williamson is too high at a critical time.
The handling of the migrant crisis by Suella Braverman and possible rebellions over the forthcoming Budget give Sunak little room for manoeuvre. Sunak told the Sun there is a “process happening” in relation to Williamson’s complaint, and it is “right to let that conclude”, suggesting he will delay speaking more on the issue.
To lose one minister so early into his premiership would be a crisis. To lose two might unleash levels of chaos more associated with Boris Johnson’s time in office. Williamson has probably already calculated that no one wants that.
[See also: Will Rishi Sunak sack Gavin Williamson?]