Sir Gavin Williamson is facing further scrutiny after allegations were made last night that the Tory party’s former chief whip raised details about a minister’s private life during a conversation in an attempt to silence her while she was on the backbenches.
The Cabinet Office minister is under investigation by the party after a bullying complaint was submitted last week by Wendy Morton, the chief whip under Liz Truss’s Government.
Oliver Dowden appeared to defend his colleague yesterday despite the fact that the expletive-laden texts were written over several weeks.
The Times alleges that Sir Gavin called the Tory MP into her office when he was chief whip in 2016 and raised a sensitive issue about her private life, which she interpreted as a tacit threat. The paper reports that the minister was campaigning on an issue that was causing the Government difficulty.
She is said to have contacted the party after it emerged that Sir Gavin had sent abusive texts to Ms Morton, which were sent over a month following the Queen‘s funeral and they relate to Sir Gavin and others being excluded from the event.
Sir Gavin’s allies denied claims he had been trying to silence the MP, telling The Times that he had raised the issue in a ‘pastoral capacity’.
Sir Gavin Williamson’s abusive texts to the Tory party’s former chief whip were sent ‘in the heat of the moment’, a Cabinet minister has claimed (Sir Gavin is pictured on October 31)
Ms Morton said in her complaint the texts amounted to ‘bullying and intimidation of parliamentary colleagues’
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is now facing questions about whether he knew about the incident before bringing Sir Gavin back into the fold.
Mr Dowden, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, has admitted the messages were unacceptable but he told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg: ‘These were sent in the heat of the moment at a very difficult time.
‘Gavin accepts he shouldn’t have said these things and that he regrets it. And we should all treat each other with respect and courtesy, and that was not the case there. He has given some context which was that this was at the time of heightened frustration, it was him as a backbencher to the chief whip.’
Ex-ministers rounded on Mr Dowden yesterday, with former culture secretary Nadine Dorries saying his ‘casual defence… is wrong and totally indefensible’.
Former party chairman and Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis did not reference this incident, but said he had ‘seen the impact bullying can have’.
Sir Gavin had sent a number of messages to Mrs Morton suggesting she was showing ‘f*** all interest in pulling things together’ and told her: ‘Don’t bother asking anything from me.’
He had accused her of using the death of the Queen to ‘punish’ senior MPs who were out of favour with Liz Truss, suggesting Privy Counsellors who were not ‘favoured’ by the administration were excluded from the funeral’s guest list.
When the former chief whip said the claims were unfounded, he said it ‘certainly looks it which… is very s*** and perception becomes reality’. He added: ‘[It’s] disgusting you are using her death to punish people who are just supportive.’
Another message, revealed by the Sunday Times, read: ‘Let’s see how many more times you f*** us all over. There is a price for everything.’
Mr Sunak is now facing questions about whether he knew about the messages before appointing him as a minister.
Mr Dowden yesterday said the PM was not aware of the content until the texts were leaked on Saturday evening, but admitted he knew of the ‘difficult relationship’ between them.
He also told Sky News: ‘He shouldn’t have sent those messages but, of course, the Prime Minister continues to have confidence in Gavin Williamson as a minister.’
Last night it was reported that Mr Sunak had been urged not to give Sir Gavin a job until the complaint against him had been investigated. The Telegraph said Sir Jake Berry, then Tory Party chairman, had warned him.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats have called for him to be sacked. Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said Mr Sunak ‘must come clean on exactly what he knew and when.’
No 10 are understood to be waiting for the outcome of the Tory party probe before deciding if any action is necessary.
Sir Gavin said on Saturday: ‘I regret getting frustrated about the way colleagues and I felt we were being treated. I am happy to speak with Wendy and I hope to work positively with her in the future as I have in the past.’
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
ANDREW PIERCE: So will he now face cabinet for the third time?
During his first speech as Prime Minister on the steps of No 10 Downing Street, Rishi Sunak mightily declared: ‘This Government will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.’
So it’s only understandable that many Tory MPs were taken aback when, just days later, twice-sacked minister Sir Gavin Williamson was brought back into the Government as Cabinet Office minister with wide-ranging responsibilities.
In the Commons last week, Tory MPs were privately speculating how soon it would be before the gaffe-prone Williamson skidded on another banana skin. But even his most ardent critics never thought it would be quite so soon.
For Williamson is now the subject of a bullying inquiry over a series of threatening, expletive-laden texts that he sent to the Tory party’s first female chief whip Wendy Morton.
The 46-year-old was furious he had not been invited to the Queen’s funeral and incorrectly blamed Morton for his failure to secure tickets. He warned her ‘there is a price for everything’ and said she had chosen to ‘f*** us all over’.
ANDREW PIERCE: The 46-year-old was furious he had not been invited to the Queen’s funeral and incorrectly blamed Morton (pictured arriving at 10 Downing Street on October 17) for his failure to secure tickets
The former culture secretary Nadine Dorries – whose department presided over the responsibility for the funeral – summed up the mood on the Tory benches: ‘Beyond stunned… Entitlement is a despicable quality.’
Brandon Lewis, who was sacked as justice secretary by Sunak, was also active on social media yesterday. ‘I’ve seen the impact bullying can have,’ he tweeted. Was he referring to Williamson? Almost certainly.
Why, then, did Rishi promote Williamson – a former fireplace salesman who is a poor Commons performer and not noted for his intellectual prowess?
For one reason: Williamson, who studied social sciences at Bradford University, is in fact a shrewd political operator.
As chief whip under Theresa May, he was known as the ‘baby-faced assassin’ for his combination of guile, charm and bullying to enforce his will. The presence of his pet tarantula Cronus (named after the king of the Titans who came to power by castrating his father) in a glass box on his desk certainly added to his air of menace.
Just as he had done with May and Boris Johnson, Williamson cunningly stuck like a limpet to Sunak in the Tory party’s summer leadership contest against Liz Truss.
Former chief whips know where the political bodies are buried, the pressure points to press, and the inducements to offer to swing voters – and Sunak had significantly more MPs backing him than Truss. Williamson made sure he took the credit.
‘He’s got the largest brass neck in Parliament. He’s absolutely shameless at smarming up to the candidate he thinks will win,’ said one Tory MP.
‘Trouble is, he is good at [building support] and whether it was Theresa, Boris or Rishi, they all owed him.
‘By the way, the WhatsApp messages to Wendy Morton were nothing compared to the abuse and threats he sent us when he was chief whip. But he thinks he’s still the chief, hence the sense of entitlement.’
This sense of power and self-importance explains why Williamson thought he could bully Morton, who had been chief whip for only days, while he had done the job for 18 months. He did it so well that May promoted him to defence secretary in November 2017.
So it’s only understandable that many Tory MPs were taken aback when, just days later, twice-sacked minister Sir Gavin Williamson was brought back into the Government as Cabinet Office minister with wide-ranging responsibilities
However, after he took the post, it became rapidly clear he was out of his depth.
It earned him the nickname Private Pike after the simpering weakling in the Second World War sitcom Dad’s Army. He lived up to the moniker in 2018, by saying Russia ‘should go away’ and ‘shut up’ at the height of the Salisbury poisoning.
Military boffins must have collectively breathed a sigh of relief when May sacked him in May 2019 for leaking information from a top-secret meeting of the National Security Council, where ministers had discussed the possible security threat from Chinese telecoms firm Huawei.
His frontline career should have sunk but he was brought back as education secretary. Here, too, he was a disaster.
He was criticised over school closures during the Covid pandemic and the shambles over an algorithm that standardised students’ GCSE and A-level results.
Johnson sacked him and when he was knighted in March, many Tory MPs told me it was a reward for remaining loyal. ‘It will do nothing to enhance the public’s view of our discredited honours system,’ said one.
After being given yet another chance by Sunak, it’s notable that Williamson does not have a department to run.
‘His job is to be Sunak’s eyes and ears in the ministerial corridors and to spot potential flash points,’ said a Whitehall source. Today, though, it’s Williamson himself who is a potential flash point.