When Gavin Williamson became Defence Secretary last November he was widely derided (not least by his own party) as an inexperienced, if hyper-ambitious, neophyte. Nothing that he has done since has dispelled this impression.
The 41-year-old has launched a rolling leadership campaign of the kind that makes Boris Johnson’s manoeuvres appear subtle. In his first speech as Defence Secretary at Policy Exchange today, Williamson declared that Russia “should go away and shut up” when asked how the Kremlin should respond to the expulsion of 23 of its spies (surely it should be “shut up and go away”?) He was swiftly mocked on Twitter for his juvenile rhetoric but his calculation appears clear: the Conservative grassroots will lap it up (though this may, of course, be cock-up, rather than conspiracy).
A senior Tory minister was unimpressed. “It’s gone down like a lead balloon,” he told me. “He’s totally destroyed our unified and dignified approach on Russia. Theresa May must say that Gavin Williamson is wrong.” No 10, the minister added, had not known of Williamson’s speech in advance and the Prime Minister had herself intended to announce the £48m investment in a new chemical weapons defence centre at the Porton Down facility.
Williamson, who one female Tory MP once described as a “self-serving cunt”, behaves like a single man following pick-up guide The Game: every move is a comically undisguised attempt to advance his personal ambitions (he is reportedly fond of personally citing House of Cards to MPs).
In one single week last December, Williamson let it be known that he had banned Philip Hammond from using RAF planes after clashing with the Chancellor over defence spending cuts and an unpaid Treasury bill (a Hammond ally labelled Williamson “Private Pike” after the hapless Dad’s Army character). The following day, Williamson told the Daily Mail that all British Isis fighters should be hunted down and killed in order to prevent them ever returning to the UK (a dramatic break with previous policy). But the former chief whip, who kept a pet tarantula, Cronus, on his desk, also sought to cultivate a softer image by rescuing two army dogs who were due to be put down.
And then, in a still more audacious move, Williamson publicly confessed to an office affair (as if clearing the decks for a leadership bid) in one interview, while using another to warn that Russian cyber attacks could kill “thousands and thousands and thousands” of Britons. The Defence Secretary, who backed Remain in the EU referendum campaign, has also unashamedly aligned himself with the cabinet’s Brexiteer wing.
Williamson, who is believed by some to be Theresa May’s successor of choice (the Prime Minister is politically indebted to her former leadership campaign manager), has yet to become a favorite of the Tory grassroots. In the most recent ConservativeHome cabinet league table, he was ranked 11th by party members. But this is not for want of trying. Minute by minute and day by day, Williamson, one senses, is contemplating how to blindside his rivals. Those who so desperately crave power, however, are rarely rewarded with it.