Gavin Williamson’s meteoric rise has dashed his chances of leading the vanguard of young fresh blood filling the Conservative leadership ranks, says Tom Pridham.
There is no denying that Gavin Williamson is an impressive operator and a genuinely talented politician. It is no surprise therefore that he is rumoured to covet Theresa May’s current job. His political abilities are demonstrated by the ease and skill with which he managed to switch from being a close ally of Cameron to an essential component of Theresa May’s leadership bid. Since the election, his abilities as a party operator in the role of Chief Whip have prevented the kind of Parliamentary humiliation that one would expect with a government in such a precarious position. In addition to his abilities, there are strategic reasons why his advancement is a wise choice. Firstly, he has an interesting backstory, born to Labour-voting parents and comprehensively educated in Scarborough, he could not be further from the Tory stereotype and would be well-placed to capitalise on shifting patterns of voting that are opening up new possibilities for the Conservative Party. Secondly, he is of a younger generation. Many have rightly been encouraging the Prime Minister to promote younger figures in an effort to give a wide field a chance of succeeding her and Williamson is clearly one of the more able performers. However, although the rather vicious criticism of some is personal and overblown, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Secretary of State for Defence is the wrong job and his promotion could do damage to both him and the Prime Minister.
The first issue is that his promotion undermines his credibility within the Party. The backlash that we have witnessed is not surprising. Though it is very possible that he will perform well (it would be no surprise if he did) despite minimal experience in defence policy, the nature of his promotion has created new enemies within the Parliamentary Party. Whatever the reality, it does appear that the Prime Minister has simply promoted a loyal lieutenant to the first position that became available. The other possibility floated by some is that he used his strength, and the Prime Minister’s weakness, to ‘promote himself’. It is unlikely that the reality is quite this simple but by promoting Williamson now, to a senior position, she has left the door open to this interpretation. Two figures who were touted in the wake of Fallon’s resignation were Penny Mordaunt and Tobias Ellwood. Both have ministerial and extra-political experience of the military – Ellwood served as an Army office and Mordaunt currently serves as a Navy reservist. They are also both very capable communicators and their advancement would work towards the wider goal of refreshing the Party leadership.
Williamson’s promotion means that the Prime Minister loses a very capable Chief Whip. His skill in this role is one of the reasons that the Government has been able to hold together. When running a minority government, you need a talented and proven Chief Whip. When you have a sexual harassment scandal rocking Westminster, this need becomes more intense. It is unwise to take the risk of moving such an individual in the current circumstances. His successor, Julian Smith, is a close ally and will be able to call on Williamson for advice, but the new Defence Secretary would cause further annoyance in the Party if he is seen to be pulling the strings in the Whip’s Office rather than overseeing Britain’s armed forces. There is only a limited role he can play.
It might have been difficult for May to avoid promoting Williamson, especially considering his performance, political abilities, and ambition. However, Defence Secretary is not the right job and this is not the right time. It is likely that had his elevation been delayed, his promotion could have been more dramatic. Indeed, the role of Minister for the Cabinet Office (possibly with the additional title of First Secretary of State) would be well suited to Williamson – it would give him a roving policy brief and be a perfect springboard to a department of his own relatively soon. Even if many of the individuals implicated in the unfolding scandal are not proven to have behaved improperly, events have reinforced the need for politics in general, and the Conservative Party specifically, to undergo a generational shift. This would have involved more senior figures stepping aside and the opening up of multiple opportunities for younger figures. Williamson could, and should, have been a part of this. He may still be, but the timing and nature of his promotion have weakened both him, and the Prime Minister.