Rishi Sunak stands by Sir Gavin Williamson despite minister facing probe into ‘bullying’ messages
Rishi Sunak stood by top minister Sir Gavin Williamson today over expletive-laden text messages sent to the former Tory chief whip.
An ally of the Prime Minister said Mr Sunak continued to have ‘confidence’ in Sir Gavin despite calls for him to be sacked.
Sir Gavin, who was reappointed to a Cabinet role by Mr Sunak last month, is facing an investigation over abusive messages sent to then chief whip Wendy Morton in recent weeks.
They are alleged to amount to ‘bullying and intimidation’.
Sir Gavin moaned about being excluded from the Queen’s funeral and accused Ms Morton of using the death of Her Majesty to ‘punish’ Tory MPs who were not favoured by then PM Liz Truss.
‘Well let’s see how many more times you f*** us all over. There is a price for everything,’ read one of the messages sent by Sir Gavin.
Sir Gavin has since spoken of his ‘regret’ about ‘getting frustrated’.
But questions are now being asked of how much Mr Sunak knew of the row when he appointed Sir Gavin as a Cabinet Office minster at the end of last month.
Then Tory chairman Sir Jake Berry is said to have told the PM the day before he entered No 10 that Ms Morton had submitted a formal complaint to the party about Sir Gavin’s conduct.
Oliver Dowden, a more senior minister to Sir Gavin at the Cabinet Office, today admitted the PM knew Sir Gavin was subject to a complaint.
But he denied Mr Sunak had seen the messages or was aware of ‘specific allegations’ when he appointed Sir Gavin.
Sir Gavin Williamson, who was appointed to a Cabinet role last month, is facing an investigation over abusive messages sent to then chief whip Wendy Morton
An ally of the Prime Minister said Rishi Sunak continued to have ‘confidence’ in Sir Gavin despite calls for him to be sacked
Sir Gavin moaned about being excluded from the Queen’s funeral and accused Ms Morton of using the death of Her Majesty to ‘punish’ MPs who were not favoured by then PM Liz Truss
Mr Dowden, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday: ‘As you have seen from the former chairman Jake Berry, he says that he highlighted that to the Prime Minister.
‘But in terms of the specific allegations, the specific exchange, the PM wasn’t aware of it until last night.’
He added: ‘I don’t think it was any secret that Gavin Williamson and other backbenchers had a difficult relationship with the chief whip.
‘He (Mr Sunak) was aware that there was a difficult relationship between the chief whip and a number of backbenchers, of which Gavin Williamson was one.’
Asked if Mr Sunak had confidence in Sir Gavin, Mr Dowden said: ‘Of course the PM continues to have confidence in Gavin Williamson.’
Mr Dowden claimed Sir Gavin’s messages were sent ‘in the heat of the moment expressing frustration’ and came at ‘a difficult time for the party’.
‘He now accepts that he shouldn’t have done it and he regrets doing so,’ he said. ‘Thankfully we are in a better place now as a party.’
In his messages to Ms Morton, which have been published by the Sunday Times, Sir Gavin complained that members of the privy council who weren’t ‘favoured’ were excluded from the Queen’s funeral.
‘Very poor and sends a very clear message,’ he wrote.
But Ms Morton assured him ‘that is not the case’ and the ‘number of places allocated was extremely limited’.
There are around 740 members of the privy council, mainly made up of senior politicians who are current or former MPs or peers, with Sir Gavin having been a member since 2015.
Sir Gavin has twice been sacked from the Cabinet in recent years.
He was fired as defence secretary by former PM Theresa May in 2019 following the leaking of confidential National Security Council information.
And he was later dismissed as education secretary by Boris Johnson last year following what was widely viewed to be a disastrous handling of school closures and exams during the Covid crisis.
Sir Gavin is now facing calls for him to be sacked from a Cabinet role for a third time.
Mr Sunak is also under pressure over his judgement in appointing Sir Gavin.
It follows a row over his reappointment of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary just six days after she was forced to resign from the same role over sending official documents from a private email address.
Pressure was heaped on Mr Sunak to act as former Cabinet minister Brandon Lewis pointedly posted on Twitter: ‘I’ve seen the impact bullying can have, reach out and be there for those who may need help. It can make all the difference.’
Oliver Dowden, a more senior minister to Sir Gavin at the Cabinet Office, today admitted the PM knew Sir Gavin was subject to a complaint
Calling for Sir Gavin to be fired, Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper said: ‘If the PM was serious about restoring integrity he would sack Gavin Williamson.
‘Instead, once again he is prioritising the interests of the Conservative Party over those of the country.’
Labour shadow minister Ed Miliband warned against a ‘cover-up’ or a ‘whitewash’ regarding the allegations against Sir Gavin.
He told Sky News: ‘These are incredibly serious issues and I think it really calls into question Rishi Sunak’s judgment and the way he made decisions about his Cabinet.
‘We already know about the whole Suella Braverman issue: being reappointed six days after she resigned.
‘It was very noticeable… that Oliver Dowden couldn’t deny that Rishi Sunak knew about those issues to do with potential bullying against Wendy Morton, the chief whip, by Gavin Williamson and yet he reappointed him.
‘What it says is that Rishi Sunak was making decisions simply in his own narrow short-term interest as far as the Conservative Party leadership was concerned, not the national interest, and there needs to be an urgent independent investigation into exactly what happened.
‘We can’t have a cover-up, we can’t have a whitewash here.
‘What did Rishi Sunak know? When did he know it? What did Gavin Williamson do and what are the implications of that?’