Even his friends have to agree that Gavin Williamson is not one of the Johnson government’s stand-out successes as a minister. Even in an unusually weak field, featuring such inadequates as Robert Jenrick, Matt Hancock and Priti Patel, as Secretary of State for Education, Mr Williamson has been a notable underperformer in the cabinet’s remedial set. “Must try harder” you might say, though there’s no evidence he’s especially lazy. Having secured only token funding from the Treasury to secure more post-covid “catch up” money for schools, the government’s independent education adviser, Kevan Collins, quit in disgust, and teachers and parents are left feeling disappointed and disaffected. On top of the exams fiasco last summer, and the dithering over opening or closing schools at the turn of the year, our Gavin’s not had a great time of it. He is even dangerously unpopular with the Tory grassroots, routinely finishing a distant last in the monthly Conservative Home ranking of cabinet ministers (with Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak and Dominic Raab the class favourites). He is prone to gaffes, has a reedy voice that is difficult to listen to, let alone be inspired by, oozes insincerity (even if he is actually sincere, sometimes), was previously sacked for leaking national security secrets (though he denies it), has no made little mark in office, has no discernible political philosophy, and will serve any leader who suits his purposes. Ideal, you may well say, for high office in today’s Conservative party, but, in all seriousness, the question is still worth asking.
How does he survive?
The answers aren’t that hard to work out. First, like Mr Hancock at Health, Mr Williamson is effectively a shock absorber for Mr Johnson. When the inevitable post-covid ministerial reshuffle eventually arrives, Mr Hancock and/or Mr Williamson can be let go, so the argument runs, in order to protect Mr Johnson’s own position – the thinking unhelpfully revealed by Dominic Cummings to a select committee last week (though he referred only to Cummings). The truth may even be that Mr Johnson isn’t that bothered about who’s nominally in charge of the public services anyway, so Gav will do just as well as anyone, at least for the time being.
But that is not the whole story. For Mr Williamson enjoys the reputation of a man who can make or break party leaders almost at will. It’s obviously partly a legend cooked up by Mr Williamson himself to make himself into a terrifying amalgam of Machiavelli, Peter Mandelson and Carlo Gambino, but there’s something in it. Indeed, the contrast between Mr Williamson the chaotic administrator and Mr Williamson the brilliant behind-the-scenes operator is dramatic. He entered the Commons only in 2010, and, after a spell as a parliamentary private Secretary at the Northern Ireland office and to Patrick McLoughlin at Transport, David Cameron promoted him to be his eyes and ears in the Commons in 2013, where he stayed, watching, learning and advising until the disaster of the Brexit referendum. As a Cameron aide he and to be a Remainer, but there seems to be no trace of strong views on Europe (or much else) in Mr Williamson’s track record. What Mr Cameron and Mr Williamson did have a forceful opinion about what was that Boris Johnson was not going to enjoy the benefits of his (perceived) treachery pandemic succeed Mr Cameron in Number 10. Mr Williamson was despatched to help Theresa May as the best “stop Boris” candidate and Mr Williamson “vowed” to do just that. As it turned out, Mr Johnson himself and his former friend Micheal Gove were perfectly capable to wrecking the Johnson leadership campaign, but Mr Williamson’s contacts and political nous no doubt played their part in Mr Johnson’s downfall. As a reward, Ms May appointed Mr Williamson her chief whip.
It was the job he was most matched to, developing an impressive sensitivity to the moods and needs of the parliamentary Conservative party, which proved invaluable as Ms May’s slender majority inherited from Mr Cameron turned into a minority administration after the catastrophic 2017 election campaign. It was Mr Williamson who negotiated the support agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party that sustained her in office, and was filmed signing the historic, if ill-starred, document. After her croaky performance at the 2017 conference, the one when the backdrop disintegrated I’ve in air and she was handed a P45 by a prankster, it was Mr Williamson who squashed a Commons coup aghast her. Mr Williamson was one of the very few figures Ms May trusted to attend her breakfast meetings at which coffee and paranoia was served.
During these turbulent times, Mr Williamson was always able to draw the comfort from his constant companion, Cronus, a Mexican red-legged tarantula who was released from his warm vivarium whenever a backbencher was proving resistant to reasoned argument. The spider was named carefully. Rather than “cuddles” or something, curious visitors to the chief whip’s own vivarium would be informed that Cronus was the Greek deity who castrated his father and ate his own children in order to retain power: suddenly obeying a three line whip on the finance bill suddenly seemed a less onerous duty. In Mr Williamson’s own playful words, “you have to look at different ways to persuade people to vote with the government… Cronus is a perfect example of an incredibly clean, ruthless killer”.
Quite so, and so it was to prove for the then defence secretary, Michael Fallon, who found himself embroiled in a “me too” sexual harassment scandal and was forced to resign his post in the autumn of 2017. The rumour is that Mr Williamson, hungry as an underfed venomous arachnid for a department of his own, sunk his fangs into Mr Fallon and took the job for himself. As one close observer of events at the time put it, “Gavin is a slimeball who knifed Mr Fallon to get the job himself”. Or, as a female Tory MP put it succinctly, he was a “self serving c***”.
Trouble was, he wasn’t that great a success. At 40 he was the youngest holder of the role since it was created in the 1960s, but he was inexperienced and made a fool of himself when he told Vladimir Putin and Russia to “shut up and go away” after the Salisbury poisonings and other outrages, it was at this time that Williamson stated to chuck his weight around with the Treasury and Number 10, demanding £20 billion for his department or else he’d destroy Ms May’s premiership. Philip Hammond, then Chancellor, took to calling the hawkish and youthful Mr Williamson “Private Pike”, which naturally soon enough made its way into the public domain. It was at this time. Too that Mr Williamson decided to confess to an extra-marital affair much earlier in his life, in his pre-political days as a fireplace salesman, with a married woman. Wisely choosing the Daily Mail for the admission, (and thus maybe winning a future favour), he said there’d been some “kissing”, but not much more, and that it had ended as suddenly as it had started. Yet if it was so minor a transgression, why bother with telling the story? As the Mail delicately added at the time, “Mrs Williamson, a former primary school teacher, gave birth to their first child in late 2004. It was not clear whether her husband’s fling took place while she was pregnant”. At any rate, Mr Williamson’s wife, Joanne, forgave him and they and their two daughters are still together. Mr Williamson’s description of the affair as “a dreadful mistake” was less than chivalrous, and he didn’t bother to tell the constituency association in Blackpool about it (as the fuels require) when he stood unsuccessfully at the 2005 general election. It’s. Of cleaner of the activists in South Staffordshire were brought into his confidence before readers of the Daily Mail.
The Defence Secretary spun the tale as best he could, albeit with a touch of cynicism: “My family means everything to me and I almost threw it away… This incident nearly destroyed two marriages…It will always be part of my past, but has not stopped my wife and I from building a wonderful family together.
“I no longer sell fireplaces and have built a career in politics. Family will always be central to what I do and what I believe in. It was the experience of nearly losing mine that made me realise how much mine really matters to me.”
An embattled Ms May accepted it was a private matter. She could not, though, accept his alleged leaking of conversations in the National Security Council with the same equanimity. In what was a confused and disputed episode, she felt she had to sack Mr Williamson because there was “compelling” evidence of his guilt. Labour demanded a police inquiry, which, oddly, Mr Williamson supported because he said it would prove his innocence. To this day he was the victim of a kangaroo court run by Mark Sedwill.
The defence secretary’s resignation was on 1 May 2019; by 24 July 2019 Mr Williamson was back in cabinet as Eduction Secretary. Having once vowed to destroy Mr Johnson and make Ms May leader and prime minister, Mr Williamson now vowed to destroy Ms May and make Mr Johnson prime minister, exercising the same moral code as, let’s say, a tarantula. To this end he served as Mr Johnson’s de facto leadership campaign manager. His knowledge of the party was invaluable: He knew here the Tory bodies were buried because he out them there. The “baby faced assassin” had struck again.
So the obvious danger for Mr Johnson is that making an enemy out of Mr Williamson might not be such a great idea. To be constructive for a moment, the obvious answer would be to put Mr Williamson in the sort of non-departmental job where his poor presentational and administrative skills wouldn’t matter and where he could apply his carnivorous political gifts to mutual advantage. Mr Williamson isn’t really what you’d call a “retail” politician. Apart from a return to being chief whip, something like Northern Ireland might suit him better, or else Chief Secretary to the Treasury, where he’d be a forge a useful alliance with Mr Sunak (recent disagreements notwithstanding).
One who knows Mr Williamson puts a more positive case for him, that away from the spider and the House of Cards stuff, there is a decent human being waiting to be excavated in the right job at the right time. The Education department may not have provided that, but Mr Williamson migh get another chance, and not just because Johnson is fearful of getting a poisonous bite. There’s probably too much snobbery attached to this product of an ordinary middle class household in Scarborough, and the family voted Labour. His father was a local government officer, his mum worked in a job centre, he went to a comprehensive school and thence to Bradford University and a social sciences degree. He has worked for, part owned and been a director of industrial companies in the North of England and in Stoke on Trent (including that admittedly naff job as a fireplace salesman and the workplace affair). He is not, in other words, another identikit public school and Oxbridge minister, and is more in touch with the kind of “red wall” voters the Tories need to caleture and retain. Nor, in fairness, have most of his departmental mishaps been purely his own fault – he was as much a prisoner, arguably, of the chaos in Number 10, the lunacies of Brexit, and an unprecedented pandemic as anyone else. At this distance, too, he seems to a have been more in the right about warning about the security dangers of having Huawei so integrated into the 5G rook out (the cause of his sacking by Ms May). Even his appalling ratings among the grassroots are getting better, helped along by a useful intervention in the culture wars, with his bill to cancel “cancel culture” and “deplatforming”. It is often said that Mr Williamson understands the “heartbeat” of the Conservative party. The question now is whether they, and their leader, are interested in understanding his.