Gavin Williamson: Rishi Sunak faces questions following resignation

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is facing questions about his judgement following the resignation of cabinet minister Sir Gavin Williamson after bullying claims.

[Sir Gavin Williamson lasts a couple of weeks before being forced out of government for a third time, but allowed to resign rather than be sacked. The government is still in chaos will “Leaky” Sue be next? – Owl]

By Christy Cooney

Mr Sunak is set to face MPs at Prime Minister’s Questions and is expected to be asked when he learned the full details of the allegations.

Sir Gavin is accused of abusive behaviour towards fellow MPs and civil servants, though denies any wrongdoing.

Labour said the episode has shown “poor judgement and leadership” by Mr Sunak.

Sir Gavin was appointed minister without portfolio after Mr Sunak, a close political ally, won the Tory leadership just two weeks ago.

Complaints against him first emerged when The Sunday Times published a series of expletive-laden texts he sent last month to then-chief whip Wendy Morton.

In the texts, he appears to complain about not having been invited to the Queen’s funeral, and seemingly accuses Ms Morton of “rigging” ticket allocations against MPs not “favoured” by then-prime minister Liz Truss.

He reportedly warned Ms Morton “not to push him about” and said that “there is a price for everything”.

A senior civil servant later told the Guardian that, during his time as defence secretary, Sir Gavin told them to “slit your throat” and, on another occasion, to “jump out of the window”.

On Tuesday, his former deputy, Anne Milton, also claimed he had behaved in a “threatening” and “intimidating” way towards MPs while serving as chief whip.

Ex-Conservative Party Chair Jake Berry has said he told Mr Sunak about Ms Morton’s complaint on 24 October, the day before Sir Gavin’s appointment.

No 10 has said the prime minister “knew there was a disagreement” but that he didn’t know the “substance” of the messages until they were published by the Sunday Times.

Sir Gavin has been reported to the MPs’ bullying watchdog, the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, over his WhatsApp messages to Ms Morton.

The Guardian has reported that the civil servant from the ministry of defence has also lodged a complaint with the body.

Speaking on Monday, Mr Sunak said the language used in the texts was “not acceptable”, but asked if it amounted to bullying said it was “right” to let an independent complaints process conclude.

Sir Gavin’s resignation marks the third time he has been forced from government. In 2019, he was sacked as defence secretary after allegedly leaking sensitive information related to Huawei’s potential involvement in the UK’s 5G network.

Later that year, he was made education secretary by Boris Johnson, but in 2021 was removed over his handling of A-level exams during the Covid pandemic.

Speaking on BBC Two’s Newsnight, deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner called Sir Gavin’s appointment last month “astonishing” and said it showed “poor judgement and lack of leadership and weakness” on the part of the prime minister.

“It would be very surprising [if] they weren’t aware of the full strength of the allegations against Gavin Williamson when he was appointed,” she said.

She accused Mr Sunak of appointing Sir Gavin as part of a “grubby little backroom deal” to make himself prime minister instead of “governing the country in the interests of the British people”.

Ms Rayner also said Sir Gavin should stand down as an MP if the bullying claims are proven. “There is no place for bullies in parliament,” she said.

Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper said: “Rishi Sunak has serious questions to answer about why he appointed Gavin Williamson, then stood by him instead of sacking him.

“His promise to lead a government of integrity has now been left in tatters.”

In his resignation letter, Sir Gavin said he refuted the “characterisation” of the claims “about my past conduct” but felt they had become a “distraction from the good work the government is doing”.

He added that he had apologised to the recipient of the text messages and would comply with the complaints process to “clear my name of any wrongdoing”.

He later tweeted that he would not be taking any severance pay, traditionally given to ministers when they leave office.

In reply, Mr Sunak said he accepted the resignation “with great sadness” and thanked Sir Gavin for his “personal support and loyalty”.

“Your commitment to successive Conservative governments and the party over the years has been unwavering,” he said.

Mr Sunak is also facing pressure over why he reappointed Suella Braverman as home secretary just weeks after she was forced to resign for breaking ministerial rules by sending an official document to a fellow MP from her personal email.

Opposition figures have again accused him of keeping her in the cabinet as part of an agreement to ensure her support for his position as prime minister.