Keir Starmer has accused Rishi Sunak of giving licence to Gavin Williamson’s “bullying” because he was too “weak” to stand up to the former minister.
Hours after Sir Gavin’s resignation, the Labour leader sought to pin the blame for his behaviour on the prime minister who gave him his job attending cabinet.
“Everyone in the country knows someone like the member for South Staffordshire, a sad middle manager getting off on intimidating those beneath him,” Sir Keir said.
“But everyone in the country also knows someone like the prime minister – the boss who is so weak, so worried the bullies will turn on him, that he hides behind them.
“What message does he think it sends when, rather than take on the bullies, he lines up alongside them and thanks them for their loyalty?”
Sir Keir told Mr Sunak: “The truth is simple: he is a pathetic bully but he would never get away with it if people like the prime minister didn’t hand him power.”
And he added: “If he can’t stand up to a cartoon bully with a pet spider….what chance has he got of running the country?”
Mr Sunak has been under fire for appointing Sir Gavin – seen in Tory ranks as a master of the dark arts of crushing plots – when he knew of a bullying complaint against the twice-sacked minister.
He also resisted calls to sack him, until further allegations forced his resignation, and wrongly claimed he faced an “independent” investigation.
In response, the prime minister took no responsibility for having appointed Sir Gavin – just two weeks ago – only regret that he had been forced to leave his government.
“Unequivocally the behaviour complained of was unacceptable and it’s absolutely right that the right honourable gentleman has resigned,” he told MPs.
“For the record I did not know about any of the specific concerns relating to his conduct as secretary of state or chief whip that date back some years.”
Mr Sunak added: “I obviously regret appointing someone who has had to resign in the circumstances.”
And, ignoring the fact that Sir Gavin resigned, rather than being sacked, he said: “I think what the British people would like to know is that when situations like this arise, that they will be dealt with properly.”
“And that’s why it is absolutely right that he resigned and it’s why it is absolutely right that there is an investigation to look into these matters properly.
“I said my government will be characterised by integrity, professionalism and accountability and it will.”
Mr Sunak’s press secretary later said that it was Sir Gavin who requested the face-to-face meeting with the prime minister on Tuesday evening at which he offered his resignation. She said she was not aware of the pair having spoken earlier the day or discussed the bullying threats in a meeting.
The press secretary said that Mr Sunak was aware at the time he appointed Williamson to the cabinet that he had had a “disagreement” with former chief whip Wendy Morton, but insisted he did not know the detail of the expletive-laden text messages which are now the subject of a bullying inquiry.
Mr Sunak was not aware until Tuesday of further allegations against Sir Gavin dating back to his time as chief whip and defence secretary, she told reporters.
The Tory chairman at the time, Sir Jake Berry, has said that he told the PM about Ms Morton’s bullying complaint before Williamson was named Cabinet Office minister.