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Gavin Williamson: the cunning Conservative faces his biggest test as Defence Secretary

There is fury among Conservative MPs at the rise of a man who has never held a major departmental post.

In recent years, Westminster has come to expect surprises. But the appointment of Gavin Williamson as Defence Secretary, following Michael Fallon's resignation, has stunned Conservative MPs. The promotion of the 41-year-old Chief Whip, who has never held a major departmental post, has prompted scepticism and even fury among Conservative colleagues. 

"Gavin is a slimeball who knifed Fallon to get the job himself," one Tory MP told me, suggesting that he would exploit Theresa May's political weakness. Another commented: "He [Williamson] has become the most loathed person in the parliamentary party, he's overplayed his hand, he's out of his depth, he's never held a ministerial post, he's never spoken at the despatch box and he's deserted the whips' office at a perilous moment". In the parliamentary tea room, a female Tory MP simply described Williamson as a "self-serving cunt". 

A Conservative minister recalled how the former chief whip advised MPs to "wait their turn" during cabinet reshuffles. Much of the anger among the parliamentary party, he said, stemmed from the belief that Williamson had not played by his own rules. 

The Yorkshireman's new post continues his remarkable ascent. As Theresa May's chief whip, Williamson became renowned for his political cunning and Machiavellian nous (aided by his pet tarantula Cronus, he never lost a vote on government business.)

Williamson got his big break as David Cameron’s parliamentary private secretary from 2013 to 2016, forging the relationships that enabled his rise. Giles Kenningham, Cameron’s former head of political press, told me: "He 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." 

Indeed, such is Williamson's influence that some Conservatives suggest he all but promoted himself. In the week that Netflix suspended production of House of Cards (following the sexual abuse allegations against Kevin Spacey), Westminster appears to have given it a new outing. In one episode, after suggesting inadequate vice-presidential nominees, the lead character (and former chief whip) Frank Underwood successfully manipulates his way into the post. 

After Cameron's resignation in 2016, Williamson privately vowed to do all he could to stop Boris Johnson entering No 10. He swiftly identified May as the best vehicle available for the task. After seeking Cameron’s permission, he phoned the then-home secretary and offered to assist her bid. Within a day, he was invited to become her parliamentary campaign manager. “I was absolutely flabbergasted, but I accepted immediately,” he later recalled.

For May, the antithesis of the clubbable Williamson, the contacts gifted by her new recruit proved invaluable. When the new Prime Minister took office, Williamson was rewarded with the post of chief whip, a few weeks after his 40th birthday. In a mark of his stature, he attended the daily 8.30am meeting of May’s inner circle (unlike Philip Hammond and Boris Johnson.)

Becoming chief whip was a notable achievement for an MP elected just six years earlier. Williamson was raised by Labour-supporting parents in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, and he went to a comprehensive school. He studied social sciences at Bradford University and is married to Joanne, a former primary school teacher. They have two daughters.

Before entering parliament, Williamson was the co-owner of a Staffordshire pottery business and, later, was the managing director of an architectural design firm. After unsuccessfully contesting the Labour-held seat of Blackpool North and Fleetwood in 2005, he won South Staffordshire in 2010 and increased his majority to 22,733 this year.

In the BBC2 docudrama Theresa v Boris: How May Became PM, Williamson was played by the actor Daniel Casey. He was portrayed as a ruthless, Malcolm Tucker-esque Machiavel. “I’ll fire you, then I’ll fucking castrate you, all right?” he warned one Tory MP who failed to vote for May in the first round of the leadership contest. The impression of menace was enhanced by the appearance of his pet tarantula.

Williamson kept the spider in a glass box on his desk. Cronus was named after a Greek titan who castrated his father and ate his children. The parliamentary authorities demanded that Williamson expel the spider, but his team convinced them otherwise. "You have to look at different ways to persuade people to vote with the government," Williamson said. "Cronus is a perfect example of an incredibly clean, ruthless killer."

In naming Williamson Defence Secretary, May has promoted a close political ally 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, recently 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).

But May's decision to promote Williamson, rather than an existing defence minister, may antagonise military generals. The Prime Minister also missed the opportunity to appoint the first female defence secretary and garner some positive headlines (former armed forces minister Penny Mordaunt was one candidate.) Tory MP Sarah Wollaston, the chair of the health select committee, tweeted of Williamson's 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. As well as having no majority of its own, May's administration must pilot epic quantites of Brexit legislation through parliament. The spectre of the Westminster sex scandal – and what, if anything, the former chief whip knew of the allegations – will also continue to haunt the government. 

Williamson, who craved a departmental post, must now make a successful transition from backroom operator to front-facing minister. Even before his promotion, Williamson was being spoken of by some as a future prime minister. "He has all the powers of patronage and the whips’ office machinery behind him," noted the former Tory MP Jerry Hayes. "He could be formidable." Williamson, who no one doubts lacks ambition, must now prove that he does not want for talent either. 

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