Most people are surprised, and perhaps a little bit suspicious, by how quickly some politicians are able to float to the top of the system and be appointed a Secretary of State with no obvious qualities other than a strong loyalty to the current PM. By the same token, it defies logic how a Minister in charge of pensions one day can shift across to farming a day later in a cabinet shuffle. It generally only works because our excellent Civil Service is there to provide the continuity and subject matter expertise, with the Minister being allowed to do the talk-shows and publicity.
Gavin Williamson’s rise to power was a bit more curious than most. Elected as an MP in 2010, he served successively as a Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister of State for Northern Ireland, the Transport Secretary and then as PPS to the PM, David Cameron. According to some, he was a mere a bag-carrier, but the PPS to the PM has historically had a lot of influence given that they are the link between the PM and his back-benchers amongst other things.
When Cameron resigned in 2016, and convinced that Boris Johnson was not the right person to lead the country, Williamson nailed his colours to Theresa May’s mast. She, in turn, rewarded him by making him her Chief Whip. As a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee, Williamson then became involved in negotiations with the DUP to support the Conservative minority government after May’s disastrous 2017 General Election decision. His success in those talks might have made it hard for Mrs May to turn him down when he effectively asked to be the Defence Secretary after Sir Michael Fallon resigned in response to allegations of “conduct unbecoming”.
Many were surprised and very disappointed by his new promotion, arguing that Williamson simply did not have the experience or gravitas to fill that role. He was, they argued, only 41, with almost no senior Governmental experience, a certain lack of judgement in some areas, and no real knowledge of the Armed Forces. Moreover, he had annoyed a number of powerful people by his apparent self-serving approach to life at Westminster, with some viewing everything he did as being a lead up to his own bid for the PM’s position.
That said, during his short time as an MP he had also shown a more down to earth and common sense approach to a number of matters. In addition, although he was a Remainer, he made it clear he believed that this country could become “great again” outside Europe if only we rolled up our sleeves and could get on with it, sentiments that many might agree with.
He saw his main job in the MOD as being one of supporting the Forces and restoring defence-budgets that had been so badly affected by the overall cuts. In that role he has been quite successful, with extra funds being put back into Defence in the last few years. He is also regarded as having been quite effective behind the scenes in a number of areas of negotiations. As is so often the case, however, the optics are what count. In his case, they do not look that good.
We are probably all aware of his comments about China at the end of last year, to be followed by a the threat to deploy one of the new carriers to the South China Sea, resulting in the cancellation of the Chancellor’s trade talks with China. It was widely reported that these outspoken comments , following on from his assertion that Russia should “Shut up and go away”, led to some likening Williamson to Private Pike in Dad’s army.
The most recent events seem to bear out the suspicions that Williamson was not fully aware of the responsibility his post carried, nor that of collective responsibility. It is this latter point that appears to have been his undoing rather than the release of sensitive information per-se from the National Security Council, and on this point alone the PM is able to justify his dismissal. Cynics might argue that this was the somewhat inevitable parting of the ways between him and the PM after his whirlwind rise to power, and that, if he was indeed the person who leaked the comments about the Chinese tech-giant, he did so as part of his long-term aim to get to the top.
For his part, Mr Williamson, who had earlier refused to resign, forcing the PPM to sack him, has strenuously denied that he was the source of the information and seems to be genuinely hurt by the accusation. That said, he also somewhat curiously added that he had the greatest faith in his military and civilian staff and that they would not have been involved; why he felt he had to say this is not clear. It might be that internal Westminster messages have been circulating indicating that his department might have been trying to support their boss’ position on the security of the UK’s 5G system, but some have already suggested it was intended to demonstrate his loyalty to the MOD as part of a longer-term personal career-strategy.
If Mr Williamson is innocent, it will be galling in the extreme for him to have been used as a scape-goat in this way and he would rightly deserve our complete sympathy. Regardless, the PM’s actions will be a strong a sign that he is no longer flavour of the month within Tory leadership circles and that his political career might be in the doldrums for the time-being. His only recourse might be to take out a civil action for defamation of some sort to clear his name, unless the “system” decides it wants to investigate on the grounds of someone having committed a criminal act when they released details of the NSC talks.
The slight irony in all of this is that Mr Williamson’s career really took off after resolving to keep Boris out of power, and yet he has now fallen for many of the same reasons; namely an apparent lack of appreciation of the value of tactful and diplomatic silence – or the need occasionally to “minimise” as those in the services will fully understand.