Gavin Williamson has quit the cabinet, saying allegations about his conduct had become a “distraction” from the “good work” of the government and vowing to clear himself of “any wrongdoing”.
But that he chose to leave rather than being forced to go means questions about Rishi Sunak’s judgement will continue to be asked.
A series of text messages from Williamson to the former chief whip Wendy Morton in which he told her “there is a price for everything” emerged last week. The former Conservative Party chairman Jake Berry has claimed that he informed Sunak of a bullying allegation against Williamson before the Prime Minister appointed him.
Since the text messages emerged, a former civil servant has alleged that Williamson, as defence secretary, told them to “slit your throat”. And in an interview with Channel 4 News, the former MP Anne Milton, who was deputy when Williamson was chief whip in Theresa May’s government, said Williamson used “salacious gossip” as “leverage against MPs”. She claims he behave in an “unethical and immoral” way as chief whip, describing his behaviour as “threatening” and “intimidating”.
She added: “It’s an image he cultivates. I think he feels that he’s Francis Urquhart from House of Cards.”
It is thought that Sunak wanted Williamson to return to the role of chief whip but that Williamson wanted a ministerial position. The Prime Minister said he was accepting Williamson’s resignation with “great sadness”.
Pressed about what Sunak knew and when, the Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan,told BBC Radio 4 this morning that the word “bullying is used quite often” in the world of politics.She said Sunak made the decision to put Williamson in his cabinet “based on the mix of talent they want in the mix of people they want” and comebacks happen “in politics all the time”.
If Sunak doubles down and, essentially, bets on the formal investigation into the complaints clearing Williamson, it will be a signal of how he plans to run No 10. Refusing to accept he made the wrong choice would be a risky strategy for a leader who vowed to bring “integrity and accountability” to government.
When his cabinet allies were in trouble, Boris Johnson stuck with them until the last and, over time, this damaged his authority. But Johnson had the protection of having won an 80-seat majority. Sunak does not have a public mandate bolstering his position in Downing Street.
Sunak may fear that Williamson’s exit means pressure will switch to the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, who quit Liz Truss’s cabinet after breaching the Ministerial Code and whose migrant policy is mired in controversy.
Any new prime minister would want to avoid an early mistake, but now his errors have been exposed, Sunak might better off owning them and moving on.