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Conservative Chief Whip Gavin Williamson promoted to Defence Secretary

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

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."

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. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Commons Confidential: Tories turn on “Lord Snooty”

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

With the Good Friday Agreement’s 20th anniversary rapidly approaching, Jeremy Corbyn’s office is scrambling to devise a celebration that doesn’t include Tony Blair. Peace in Northern Ireland is a sparkling jewel in the former prime minister’s crown, perhaps the most precious legacy of the Blair era. But peace in Labour is more elusive. Comrade Corbyn’s plot to airbrush the previous party leader out of the picture is personal. Refusing to share a Brexit referendum platform with Blair and wishing to put him in the dock over Iraq were political. Northern Ireland is more intimate: Corbyn was pilloried for IRA talks and Blair threatened to withdraw the whip after the Islington North MP met Gerry Adams before the 1997 election. The Labour plan, by the way, is to keep the celebrations real – focusing on humble folk, not grandees such as Blair.

Beleaguered Tory Europeans call Brextremist backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg – the hard-line European Research Group’s even harder line no-dealer – “Lord Snooty” behind his back. The Edwardian poshie, who orchestrates Theresa May’s taxpayer-funded Militant Tendency (members of the Brexit party within a party are able to claim “research” fees on expenses), is beginning to grate. My irritated snout moaned that the Beano was more fun and twice as informative as the Tories’ own Lord Snooty.

Labour’s Brexit fissures are getting bigger but Remainers are also far from united. I’m told that Andy Slaughter MP is yet to forgive Chuka Umunna for an “ill-timed” pro-EU amendment to last June’s Queen’s Speech, which led to Slaughter’s sacking from the front bench for voting to stay in the single market. The word is that a looming customs union showdown could trigger more Labexits unless Jezza embraces tariff-free trade.

Cold war warriors encouraging a dodgy Czech spy to smear Comrade Corbyn couldn’t be further from the truth about his foreign adventures. In Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, Corbyn recalled spending a night in Burundi pumping up footballs. The club offered to donate shirts for an aid trip but he asked for the balls to be shared by entire African villages. He was War on Want, not Kim Philby.

Screaming patriot Andrew Rosindell, the chairman of an obscure flags and heraldry committee, is to host a lecture in parliament on the Union Jack. I once witnessed the Romford Tory MP dress Buster, his bull terrier, in a flag waistcoat to greet Maggie Thatcher. She walked past without noticing.

A Tory MP mused that Iain Duncan Smith was nearly nicknamed “Smithy”, not “IDS”, for his 2001 leadership campaign. Smithy would still have proved a lousy commander.

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia