Former Conservative cabinet ministers have condemned No 10’s failure to act on a bullying complaint against Gavin Williamson, as the controversy provokes a fresh crisis for Rishi Sunak.
The prime minister is facing questions after an ally admitted he knew of the allegation – which saw abusive texts sent to the then-chief whip – but insisted Sir Gavin will keep his cabinet job.
Brandon Lewis, the former Northern Ireland Secretary, said bullying should never be seen as “an inevitable part of our political life”, after an attempt to brush off the messages as a “heat of the moment” mistake.
Nadine Dorries, the former culture secretary, attacked the excuse given for Sir Gavin’s behaviour by Oliver Dowden, the Cabinet Office minister and key Sunak ally, as “totally wrong and inexcusable”.
Mr Dowden also claimed the minister and Wendy Morton, the then-chief whip, had “a difficult relationship”, but Ms Dorries said: “Any woman would have the same with any man who tried to bully, threaten and intimidate her.”
The comments reflect Tory alarm that No 10 has chosen to stand by Sir Gavin, despite his expletive-laden texts being put in public view by The Sunday Times.
Mr Dowden’s “heat of the moment” defence is also undermined by the fact that the messages were sent over a five-week period, from mid-September.
It is also unclear what job Sir Gavin does. He has been appointed “minister without portfolio”, a Cabinet role, but No 10 has been unable to say what that entails.
Labour’s Ed Miliband alleged a “cover-up” or a “whitewash” over the allegations made, saying the affair “calls into question Rishi Sunak’s judgment”.
In the texts, revealed by The Sunday Times, Mr Williamson told Ms Morton ““you f*** us all over” in anger at being excluded from the Queen’s funeral, adding: “There is a price for everything.”
But Mr Dowden downplayed the apparent threat, saying: “That is in the past now and thankfully we are in a better place as a party.”
Asked about thew twice-sacked minister’s future, the Cabinet Office minister replied: “The prime minister continues to have confidence in Gavin Williamson as a minister.”
Mr Lewis retweeted, pointedly, a Twitter thread in which he warned he had “seen the impact bullying can have, adding: “I was bullied as a teenager. I am dyslexic and was overweight.”
One tweet said: “Bullying isn’t a harmless rite of passage or a part of the rough and tumble of school life. And it shouldn’t be an inevitable part of our political life either.”
Ms Dorries tweeted that Mr Dowden’s “casual defence” of Sir Gavin, on both Sky News and the BBC, was “just wrong and totally indefensible”.
On the abusive messages, the Cabinet Office minister insisted: “It is not the case that the prime minister saw this exchange of text messages until they were leaked.”
But he admitted: “The prime minister knew that there was a difficult relationship and we’ve seen from the former chairman, Jake Berry, he says that he highlighted that to the prime minister.”