Good evening. Gavin Williamson, 41, is Britain’s new Defence Secretary after Michael Fallon became the first ministerial casualty of the sexual harassment scandal now washing over Westminster. Sir Michael had already admitted inappropriate touching, and friends say he suspected that other, perhaps worse stories would soon come to light. The PM moved quickly to fill his job, but her own position is now perilous – for there is every chance Sir Michael won’t be the last.
Mr Williamson is an interesting if elusive character. Elected only in 2010, he served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to David Cameron until Mr Cameron’s resignation last June. In the ensuing leadership election he backed Theresa May, having reportedly vowed to do anything to stop Boris Johnson. For this he was rewarded with the position of Chief Whip, in which he menaced MPs with his beautiful pet tarantula Cronus. Like Mrs May and Sir Michael, he voted Remain. He is replaced by Esther McVey.
There is a whiff of Francis Urquhart about his ascent. As Rob Wilson, a former whip himself, explained in the Telegraph some days ago, much of this sexual misconduct was probably already known to the whips. It is probably not true that the scandalous spreadsheet currently circulating Westminster was a creation of the Tory whips’ office (more likely it was unofficially compiled by staffers). Still, a whip’s job is to protect the party, which means most of this information was probably filed away for later leverage, potential victims be damned. So one question is: what did Mr Williamson know about Sir Michael? What does he know about his new Cabinet colleagues?
Regardless of the answers, Conservative MPs are furious. “A bizarre appointment,” said one. “The most unpopular political decision I have ever known,” said another. Mr Williamson “knifed Fallon and pinched his job,” one told Sky. Some criticism has been detailed: “He has become the most loathed person in the parliamentary party. He’s overplayed his hand, he’s out of his depth, he’s never held a ministerial post.” Others are more succinct, with one female MP declaring him “a self-serving c—”. The consensus is that Theresa May has done what she always seems to do in difficult times: retreat into her comfort zone and appoint an unpopular confidante. Indeed, she is seen as being so weak that Mr Williamson effectively appointed himself.
But what does this all have to do with Brexit? Well, how can it be separate? Mr Williamson may be of aid to Theresa May if she wishes to take a stand against the harder Brexiteers to her right, given his longstanding antipathy for Boris Johnson (her chief rival and the Brexiteers’ impromptu standard-bearer). She has called an emergency meeting of party leaders next week to push for a new complaints body. But with Damian Green also facing accusations, we could soon see more ministers felled or even MPs suspended. “The dam has broken on this now,” said Ruth Davidson at the Spectator awards last night. Who wants to bet that we’ve seen the worst of the flood?
That won’t just erode Mrs May’s majority; it will also further distract from the momentous task of exiting the EU, and add to the dangerous sense of chaos and dysfunction which has engulfed Britain’s government at this crucial national moment. Her only consolation is that, with similar and in some cases worse accusations circling the Labour Party, her opponents might be unwise to attempt to exploit the situation.
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