Departing cabinet ministers are often unfairly blamed for the mistakes of others: because they have had to front up cuts they didn’t agree with, taken office as the mistakes of their predecessors bore fruit, or because their mistakes were actually due to factors outside their control. Sometimes they have departments that are structurally unsound or they are the victims of events.
Gavin Williamson is not one of those cabinet ministers. Gavin Williamson actually does deserve to be blamed for Boris Johnson’s mistakes. He got him elected leader for one thing, and then, when he was rewarded with a return to the cabinet, proceeded to make many mistakes of his own at the Department for Education (DfE).
Unlike other error-prone ministers, Williamson’s problem wasn’t that he was out of his depth or incapable of running a department: whatever one thinks of how his time at the Ministry of Defence ended, he was undoubtedly on top of his brief and perfectly capable of running a department day-to-day. His highly effective tenure as chief whip, much of it under difficult circumstances, showed that he was able to turn his hand to what, in corporate-speak, we might call “stakeholder management”, but in plain English just means “working with allies and other organisations in a way that makes them feel happy and gets across what you want to them clearly”.
As secretary of state for education, Williamson did none of these. It’s not unusual for a Conservative education secretary to be at odds with the National Education Union (NEU), which represents classroom teachers, teaching assistants and other school staff, nor particularly unusual for them to be at odds with NASUWT, which represents teachers. It is highly unusual for them to be at odds with the NEU, NASUWT and the National Association of Head Teachers (which represents, surprise surprise, headteachers) and the Association of School and College Leaders (which represents headteachers and the leaders of sixth form colleges and further education institutions). It’s unusual to alienate both university vice-chancellors and the leaders of further education institutions.
Williamson, who owed his ascent to a mastery of political intrigue, was felt by his civil servants to have just one question on his mind about schools: was the school in question in a marginal constituency with a Conservative MP who might be grateful to him later on? During the pandemic, Williamson engaged in public clashes with the trade unions rather than focusing on the serious logistical challenges of getting schools open, and bungled into not one but two avoidable messes over exam grades.
His departure is a big risk for Johnson, though, because Williamson is a serious organiser and having him on the outside may turn out to be a fatal mistake. But it is also an opportunity: the Conservative Party hasn’t really had much of a big picture plan on education since the departure of Michael Gove from the DfE in 2014, with Nicky Morgan and Justine Greening both tasked with the role of “delivering Govian policies without delivering Govian unpopularity”. The Conservatives have had little new to say about education and skills for some time, and Johnson now has an opportunity to either put boosters under their old agenda or set the party’s education policy on an entirely different trajectory.