Bullying accusations topple scandal-gripped Williamson
Rishi Sunak has lost his first cabinet minister to scandal within just two weeks of taking office, as Sir Gavin Williamson resigned last night over claims of bullying. The shock move came after a slew of allegations left Sir Gavin facing at least three investigations into his behaviour.
Claims that he had told a senior civil servant to “slit your throat” were condemned as “utterly, utterly unacceptable” by a cabinet colleague. And his former deputy in the government whips’ office described his behaviour towards MPs as “threatening” and “intimidating”. Anne Milton told Channel 4 News that, as chief whip, Sir Gavin would use salacious gossip about MPs’ sex lives, drinking and mental health to exert “leverage” over them. And she said that he had once told her to inform a Tory MP whom he had assisted with a financial difficulty that he now “owned him”.
The former Cabinet Office minister said he would fight to “clear his name” and was stepping down because the accusations against him were “becoming a distraction from the good work this government is doing”. But Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said his departure was “a damning reflection of a weak prime minister”. And Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper said there should be no third return to the cabinet for Sir Gavin, who was previously sacked as defence secretary and education secretary.
“Rishi Sunak appointed Gavin Williamson with full knowledge of serious allegations about his conduct, and repeatedly expressed confidence in him,” said Ms Rayner. “This is yet another example of Rishi Sunak’s poor judgement and weak leadership. It is clear that he is trapped by the grubby backroom deals he made to dodge a vote, and is incapable of putting country before party.”
The Independent can also reveal that the scandal is hurting Mr Sunak in the red wall seats he needs to win at the next general election. A focus-group session, convened by the More in Common group for the newspaper, saw voters accuse Mr Sunak of making appointments to his cabinet “purely” to keep himself in power. One former Tory MP told The Independent that Sir Gavin was a “classic bully” who “picks on the vulnerable and the weak”, adding: “I always thought he was a twat.”
In a letter to Mr Sunak, Sir Gavin said he had apologised to former chief whip Wendy Morton for the 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 Ms Morton revealed yesterday morning that she had referred the incident to parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS).
Sir Gavin is also facing an ICGS 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 Sir Gavin 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 the correspondence with Ms Morton appeared in the press last weekend. The messages showed Sir Gavin 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 fuck all interest in pulling things together.”
Pressure on the minister heightened with the publication yesterday 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, if confirmed, were “utterly, utterly unacceptable”, while Mr Sunak’s official spokesperson described the allegations as “serious”.
And Ms Milton fuelled demands for Sir Gavin’s removal by describing how he had allegedly instilled a culture of fear among Tory MPs by using their physical and mental problems as “leverage” to maintain control. She alleged that Sir Gavin had acted in an “unethical and immoral” and “shocking” manner
while chief whip in Theresa May’s government from 2016-17, modelling himself on the devious Francis Urquhart from TV hit House of Cards.
She referred to claims of Sir Gavin collecting “salacious gossip”, such as details about the “sexual preferences” of MPs. “He would come into the office and say ‘guess who’ enjoys some form of sex or another,’” she said. “I found it quite distasteful.” And she recalled an email Sir Gavin had 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 the style adopted by Sir Gavin – who notoriously kept a tarantula called Cronos in his office – 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 ... 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.”
Ms Cooper, the Lib Dems’ deputy leader, called for a full independent inquiry to establish what Mr Sunak knew about the allegations and when they had come to his attention. “Rishi Sunak has serious questions to answer about why he appointed Gavin Willlamson, then stood by him instead of sacking him,” said Ms Cooper. “His promise to lead a government of integrity has now been left in tatters. People deserve so much better than this endless Conservative chaos.”
Former Tory chair Jake Berry has said he informed Mr Sunak on the day he became prime minister that Ms Morton had lodged a formal complaint with the party over the messages. Conservative former cabinet minister Baroness Morgan also said she had had “run-ins” with Sir Gavin when he was chief whip, adding: “None of this surprises me, sadly.”
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