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3 November 2017

Tory discontent isn’t the only reason Theresa May might regret promoting Gavin Williamson

The next question in the sexual harassment scandal will be who knew what was going on, and when.

By Stephen Bush

Has Theresa May made her last mistake? The promotion of Gavin Williamson from the position of chief whip to Defence Secretary has provoked anger and unease within the Conservative Party.

The important thing to understand is that the defence brief is the dream job as far as many Tory MPs are concerned. It exists in the same bracket that Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs put health, education and international development. That’s before you get into the fact that the essential first duty of government is to keep its citizens safe. So for an untried MP – Williamson has never spoken from the despatch box and a little over a year ago the highest post he had held was that of David Cameron’s bag-carrier – to be given this role is particularly galling.

Adding to Conservative unease is that Williamson doesn’t appear to have practised what he preached. MPs who listened and were persuaded when he told them they should wait their turn, and that early promotions lead to restiveness among the rest of the parliamentary party, now feel that he has jumped the queue, and are using the kind of language about him that would set off Whitehall’s firewall if I used it in this email. (George has helpfully collected some of it here.)

MPs are putting two and two together and making a conspiracy: they are accusing Williamson of forcing out Michael Fallon to make room for himself around the top table.

There’s an irony in that Williamson’s odds of becoming the next leader narrowed dramatically at the bookies as soon the move was announced, when in fact they were going the other way. Still, if he makes a success of the defence brief – which, in party terms basically means duffing up Philip Hammond and avoiding further cuts to defence spending – the circumstances of his elevation may be forgotten.

That the Sun‘s Tom Newton Dunn has revealed that it was Andrea Leadsom who forced the issue of Fallon’s departure – he’s accused of telling her that he knew a place she “could warm her hands” when she complained of feeling chilly, a remark that Fallon denies making – will also dampen down suspicions that Williamson created a vacancy for himself.

But the bigger problem for both the PM and her new Defence Secretary is revealed in the latest harassment story to hit Labour, revealed by Laura Hughes in the Telegraph. Kelvin Hopkins, the 76-year-old MP for Luton North, has been suspended from the Labour Party after new claims that he sexually harassed Labour activist Ava Etemadzadeh in 2013, when she was 24.

The Hopkins allegations are a particular problem for Labour, as Etemadzadeh told the whips’ office in 2013 and nothing was done. A further complaint was made in 2016 to the leader’s office and Hopkins was, nonetheless, appointed to a frontbench role under Jeremy Corbyn.

It adds further weight to Bex Bailey’s campaign for an independent body to be placed in charge rather than political parties, who will always have a vested interest in covering up the story rather than getting to the bottom of it.

It also reveals where the sexual harassment story is going to end up. After the question of who did what is resolved, the next question will be who knew about what was going on and when. That question isn’t going to be easy to answer for any of the party leaders or their chief whips. And for that reason, the decision to promote Williamson may haunt May for reasons other than bruised ego.