Has Theresa May just crowned the Tories’ heir apparent? Some months ago we started speculating about when the generational shift in the Conservative Party would begin. Today we can say that process is well and truly under way and that Gavin Williamson is by far the best placed of all the 40-something contenders. The reaction inside the Party is fascinating as a generation of Conservative MPs realise that they are now yesterday’s men and women.
Williamson’s rise has been fascinating. He achieved the highly unusual distinction of being promoted directly into the cabinet without having held a more junior ministerial job. Promoted to a very difficult position, he’s undoubtedly made a success of that job and has been rewarded handsomely.
Prior to his appointment, Williamson, the Government’s Chief Whip, was relatively unknown to the public, perhaps best known for his pet tarantula “Cronus” which he kept on his desk.
Williamson’s appointment means May not only adds an intensely loyal lieutenant to a fractious cabinet, but also avoids the necessity for a wider, more debilitating reshuffle. However, losing a Chief Whip at this stage is bound to be deeply destabilising for the Government.
Whilst on paper the MOD appears to be a plum promotion for Williamson, as Chief Whip in a minority government he would have wielded considerable influence and patronage. He was entrusted with seeing off the coup attempts against Theresa May’s leadership as well mutinous Brexit rebels as he steered 8 Brexit Bills through Parliament.
Williamson got his first big break in Government as David Cameron’s Parliamentary private secretary between 2013 and 2016.
Remarkably, when Cameron resigned, Williamson seamlessly transitioned his loyalties to Theresa May, becoming her Parliamentary campaign manager. It is thought that he was fuelled by a desire to do all that he could to scupper Boris Johnson’s leadership ambitions and May was vehicle to achieve that.
When the new Prime Minister took office, Williamson was rewarded with the post of Chief Whip. In a mark of his influence, he attended the daily 8.30am meeting of May’s inner circle, unlike some of the “big beasts” in Government, including Philip Hammond.
In the morning of 26 June, as the Conservatives finalised their Parliamentary deal with the DUP, it was not Theresa May but her Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson, who signed the agreement which delivered an effective working majority for the Conservatives.
Williamson passed his first major test with flying colours, securing the passage of the Queen’s Speech. He also successfully steered the Article 50 legislation through Parliament, un-amended.
Becoming Chief Whip was a notable achievement for an MP elected just six years earlier for South Staffordshire. The comprehensive school educated Williamson was raised by Labour-supporting parents before going on to study social sciences at Bradford University.
Prior to entering Parliament in 2010, Williamson was the co-owner of a Staffordshire pottery business and, later, was the managing director of an architectural design firm. He unsuccessfully fought the Labour-held seat of Blackpool North and Fleetwood in 2005.
Williamson leaves the Whips Office with the distinction of having never lost a Commons vote in Parliament – it remains to be seen whether his successor, Julian Smith, can achieve the same.
With his promotion to Defence Secretary, speculation about a future run for the Tory leadership is bound to intensify. Already parallels are being drawn between Williamson and another youthful chief whip who went on to seize the Tory crown – Ted Heath.
Understandably, there are colleagues, who are less than impressed with his appointment. Sarah Wollaston, Chair of the Health Select Committee, has commented that “there are times when offered a job when it would be better to advise that another would be more experienced and suited to the role.”
It has also been suggested that his promotion has more than a whiff of “House of Cards” about it. In Michael Dobbs’ popular Netflix series, there is a scene in which a chief whip helps the President decide on a VP, and ends up suggesting himself.