Gavin Williamson has resigned from Rishi Sunak’s cabinet amid a scandal over allegations of ‘bullying’ behaviour.
The shock move, just two weeks after Williamson was appointed Cabinet Office minister when Mr Sunak took power, came after a slew of allegations left him facing at least three investigations into his behaviour.
The former chief whip said he would “clear his name”, but was stepping down because the accusations against him were “becoming a distraction for the good work this government is doing”.
Sir Gavin, who has twice previously been sacked from government, said that he had apologised to Wendy Morton over expletive-laden messages he sent her after being excluded from the guest list for the Queen’s funeral.
The Conservative party is conducting an investigation into the texts, and former chief whip Ms Morton this morning revealed she has referred the incident to parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievances Service.
Williamson is also facing an IGCS investigation over allegations that, as defence secretary, he told a civil servant to “slit your throat” and “jump out of the window”. Mr Sunak has described the allegations as “serious” and Downing Street said he was considering whether any further action is needed.
Sir Gavin said he “refutes” the characterisation of the comments as bullying.
His resignation pre-empts any possible decision by the prime minister to refer the matter to the Cabinet Office propriety and ethics team for judgement on whether he had breached the ministerial code of conduct.
In his resignation letter, he told Mr Sunak: “As you know, there is an ongoing complaints process concerning text messages I sent to a colleague.
“I am complying with this process and I have apologised to the recipient for those messages.
“Since then, there have been other allegations made about my past conduct. I refute the characterisation of these claims, but I recognise these are becoming a distraction for the good work this government is doing for the British people.
“I have therefore decided to step back from government so that I can comply fully with the complaints process that is underway and clear my name of any wrongdoing. “
Mr Sunak declared his “full confidence” in Sir Gavin after details of his correspondence with Ms Morton appeared in the press last weekend. They showed him complaining that it looked “very shit” that he was not among MPs invited to the royal funeral.
Despite Ms Morton’s assurances that he was not being personally snubbed, he replied: “It’s very clear how you are going to treat a number of us which is very stupid and you are showing f* all interest in pulling things together.”
Pressure on the minister heightened with the publication on Tuesday of claims from a senior civil servant at the Ministry of Defence that he had belittled a member of staff in front of others.
Fellow cabinet minister Mel Stride said the reported comments would be “utterly, utterly unacceptable” while Mr Sunak’s official spokesperson described the allegations as “serious”.
And Williamson’s former deputy in the whips’ office, Anne Milton, fuelled demands for his removal by describing how he allegedly instilled a culture of fear among Tory MPs by using their physical and mental problems as “leverage” to maintain control.
The former Tory minister described Sir Gavin’s behaviour while government chief whip between 2016-17 as “threatening” and “intimidating” and alleged that he acted in an “unethical and immoral” and “shocking” manner, modelling himself on the devious Francis Urquhart from TV hit House of Cards
Ms Milton told Channel 4 News that Williamson’s “threatening” and “intimidating” behaviour differed sharply from that of other chief whips.
She referred to claims of Williamson collecting “salacious gossip”, such as details about the “sexual preferences” of MPs.
And she recalled an email Williamson sent discussing the behaviour of an MP who had been drinking heavily the night before, in which she said he wrote: “I actually think best not to say anything to him. It just helps by giving you personally a little more leverage in future.”
Describing Sir Gavin’s style as chief whip, Ms Milton said: “It’s an image he cultivates. I think he feels that he’s Francis Urquhart from House of Cards.”
And she added: “All four previous chief whips saw the whips’ office primary duty is to get the government’s legislation through parliament, but also understood the important role the whips’ office has to play in its pastoral care, and all of them felt very strongly about it.
“I never really felt that with Gavin Williamson. I got the impression that he loved salacious gossip and would use it as leverage against MPs if the need arose.”