The behaviour of Sir Gavin Williamson is under the spotlight again amid claims he brought up a colleague’s private life during a conversation in an alleged bid to strong-arm her into voting with the government of the day.
It came just a day after a separate report emerged showing that Sir Gavin, knighted by ex-prime minister Boris Johnson earlier this year, sent expletive-laden texts to the Conservative Party former chief whip in a row over tickets to the late Queen’s funeral, sparking bullying claims.
Rishi Sunak appointed Sir Gavin to his government during last month’s reshuffle, raising the eyebrows of opposition MPs – as well as some of those on the government benches.
Why so? Sir Gavin has been no stranger to controversy and was sacked from the two previous positions he held in the cabinet under ex-PM Theresa May and her successor, Mr Johnson, following two very different scandals.
Ms May appointed Sir Gavin as chief whip and parliamentary secretary to the Treasury in 2016 after playing a key role in her successful leadership campaign to replace David Cameron. He was known for keeping a pet tarantula called Cronus on his desk while chief whip.
During a speech at the Conservative Party conference in 2017, Sir Gavin joked that, while he preferred to persuade colleagues through a carrot and stick approach, “it is amazing what can be achieved with a sharpened carrot”.
It wouldn’t be long until he saw the wrong end of a sharpened implement himself. Sir Gavin was sacked as defence secretary in May 2019 following an inquiry into a leak from a top-level National Security Council meeting.
Sir Gavin strenuously denied leaking information about a plan to allow Huawei – the Chinese telecoms giant – limited access to help build the UK’s new 5G network. Although he was never officially named as the leaker, Ms May said there was “compelling evidence” against him and concluded that she had “lost confidence in his ability to serve” in the government.
But it wasn’t long before Sir Gavin returned to government. Following another Conservative Party leadership contest, he was appointed education secretary by the newly crowned leader and PM, Mr Johnson, who he supported in the race to replace Ms May.
It is perhaps an understatement to say that Sir Gavin’s time in charge of the department was not a success, according to his critics. He oversaw the exams fiasco during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and was sacked by Mr Johnson in September 2021 as the PM sought to “reset” his government.
The story of Mr Johnson’s downfall is well documented and during the summer another leadership contest took place, in which Sir Gavin backed Rishi Sunak, who was defeated by the winner Liz Truss.
But Mr Sunak, the former chancellor, would eventually go on to make it into No 10 after Ms Truss’s government imploded following her and Kwasi Kwarteng’s disastrous mini-Budget in September, which sent the markets into freefall and the value of the pound plunging.
Sir Gavin is said to have helped with both of Mr Sunak’s campaigns to become party leader and his loyalty was rewarded last month when the prime minister made him a minister without portfolio – meaning he attends cabinet but is not in charge of any department.
Sir Gavin has voiced “regret” for the expletive-laden texts sent to Wendy Morton, complaining at his exclusion from the congregation for the funeral of the Queen. On the private life of his colleague, he said he brought this up in a pastoral capacity.
Party whips are responsible for MPs’ welfare as well as maintaining discipline when it comes to government votes – a relationship that has been criticised by many MPs and campaigners.
Mr Sunak has expressed “full confidence” in Sir Gavin despite describing the messages he sent to Ms Morton as “unacceptable”. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Sir Gavin was “clearly not suitable” for his job in the Cabinet Office, calling his appointment a sign of how “weak” Mr Sunak is.