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2 November 2017

Conservative Chief Whip Gavin Williamson promoted to Defence Secretary

Theresa May's surprise appointment of the highly-rated 41-year-old has stunned Westminster. 

By George Eaton

Following Michael Fallon’s resignation last night, Conservative Chief Whip Gavin Williamson (who I profiled in July)  has been named the new Defence Secretary. The surprise appointment continues Williamson’s remarkable ascent. The 41-year-old, who was elected in 2010, has long been valued by Theresa May and is respected by Tory MPs on all wings for his political nous. Indeed, such is Williamson’s standing that some Conservatives are suggesting that he, in effect, promoted himself. 

Giles Kenningham, David Cameron’s former head of political press (Williamson was the former PM’s Parliamentary Private Secretary), recently told me: “He [Williamson] understands the heartbeat of the party, he has a forensic knowledge of what’s going on, he puts in the work in the tea rooms and the bars. He knows everyone.” Williamson, who craved a departmental post, must now seek to make a successful transition from backroom operator to front-facing minister. Even before this appointment, as I noted in my profile, he was being spoken of by some as a future Prime Minister. 

In naming Williamson Defence Secretary, May has promoted a close political ally (Williamson became her leadership campaign manager after vowing to do all he could to stop Boris Johnson reaching No.10) and maintained the cabinet’s Brexit balance (Williamson backed Remain). “He’s very perceptive. He’s very good at grasping the main issues,” Bill Cash, a venerable Eurosceptic, told me. Nicky Morgan, a leading Tory Remainer, said: “Time spent in Gavin’s company is always interesting and entertaining. We’ve had our share of frank conversations but it’s always done on the basis of equals.”

The appointment also continues May’s habit of promoting state-educated MPs (her cabinet features the lowest number of privately-educated members since Clement Attlee’s). Williamson was raised by Labour-supporting parents in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, went to a comprehensive school, and has two daughters with his wife Joanne, a former primary school teacher. 

But May’s decision to bring in Williamson, rather than promoting an existing defence minister, may antagonise military generals. Tory MP Sarah Wollaston, the chair of the health select committee, tweeted of the appointment: “There are times when offered a job that it would be better to advise that another would be more experienced & suited to the role.”

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Conservative MPs, meanwhile, will question May’s decision to move a respected Chief Whip at this perilous hour (aided by his pet tarantula Cronus, he never lost a vote on government business). May’s administration not only has no stable majority but also an abundance of troublesome Brexit legislation. And the spectre of the Westminster sex scandal – and what, if anything, the former Chief Whip knew of the allegations – will continue to haunt the government. 

Update: Julian Smith, Williamson’s deputy, has been named the new Chief Whip (maintaining continuity in the whips office). Esther McVey, the Tory MP who returned to parliament in 2017 after losing her seat in 2015, replaces Smith as deputy chief whip.