Will Rishi Sunak’s Government be torn apart by internal revolt – as Boris Johnson’s and Liz Truss’s were – with rebels using the media to take Ministers out?
Last week, the target was Suella Braverman. Jake Berry, until recently the Chairman of the Conservative Party, accused the Home Secretary of “multiple breaches of the Ministerial code”. This week, it is Gavin Williamson.
Berry’s name comes up again. In yesterday’s Sunday Times, it was reported that he received a complaint, when Chairman, about Williamson, a former Chief Whip, by Wendy Morton, now also a former Chief Whip. (There have been so many Ministerial changes recently that it is difficult to keep up.)
It’s worth pointing out that it is novel to see two former Chief Whips, holders of a post renowned for its circumspection, to see their beans spilled all over the front pages of the Sunday papers, whatever the source of the story.
And to see a former Party Chairman in the mix. And for that same former Chairman – another post renowned for its loyalty to the colours – to have openly attacked a Cabinet Minister.
Both incidents are symptoms of the replacement of a culture of discretion by a culture of disclosure – fuelled by the gradual erosion of the old post-war military culture in the Commons, the rise of celebrity, a decline in loyalism, whips with less patronage, the effect of social media and Covid lockdowns, and post-Brexit strains on Party unity.
This is not to say that the old ways were better than the new ones. They are better for the legislature and worse for the executive, better for lobby journalists and worse for Tory togetherness, better for openness and worse for privacy (and secrecy).
You must take your pick. This brings us to the content of the row itself. Williamson wanted a ticket to the Queen’s funeral. He blamed Morton for not providing one, the allocation for Tory MPs being partly in the whips’ hands.
He suggested during a series of text exchanges that Morton was biased against him and others. She had voted for Liz Truss in the Conservartive leadership election of the summer and he had supported Rishi Sunak. The Sunday Times printed further texts between the two in the wake of Williamson having missed a vote.
It isn’t unfair to describe the sum of Williamson’s texts as “we know where you live” – and, remember, this is a former Chief Whip talking (or rather texting.)
“Don’t forget I know how this works so don’t puss me about”, one read. “Well let’s see how many more times you f*ck us all over. There is a price for everything,” said another. Morton’s texts are polite if stiff throughout.
It’s been correctly pointed out that Williamson’s texts wouldn’t pass muster in any decent workplace. Which raises a further issue.
The independence of MPs has been cramped since the John Major years by a mass of regulators who have appeared since – the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests (Johnson got through two of these and Sunak hasn’t appointed a replacement).
Some would doubtless like to see Williamson hauled over the coals by a regulator for threatening a colleague. I think there is a balance to be struck.
On the one hand, the menacing parts of Williamson’s texts are unacceptable, to use the vogue word of our times. On the other, it would be dispiriting to see MPs forced to communicate in woke language that might be used in an American law firm.
Williamson’s judges should be the Prime Minister, who brought him back to the Cabinet table, the Chief Whip, who must judge whether those elected as Conservative MPs retain the whip and, above all, his constituents. What should now be done with him – especially since further claims are surfacing. My media colleagues are on the hunt for another scalp.
You will have your view. It’s unlikely to be a favourable one: Williamson was bottom of our recent Cabinet League Table and in negative ratings.
Ask Party members what they think of him and the view of those who aren’t ultra-loyalists may well be that he was a bad Education Secretary and is an inveterate intriguer.
My own take for what it’s worth is that Sunak shouldn’t have brought him back. His Cabinet Office responsibilities are yet to be set out. And the Prime Minister will doubtless have been advised not to rehabilitate him.
Sunak is now pronged by a familiar Morton’s Fork. Dismiss Williamsom, and you’ve bowed to media pressure and shown yourself to be weak. Keep him, and you risk further claims, disclosures and rows – and seem stubborn. “Sunak should have fired him straightaway,” the wiseacres say knowingly after the event.
If you stand back from Williamson for a moment and consider the landscape more widely, you will soon see that the Johnson and Truss governments weren’t simply brought down by rebels and journalists.
Both played their part, but the former was pranged by Covid parties (and not governing in a purposeful way) and the latter by her mini-budget (and the market turmoil that it triggered).
Sunak will need to offer fewer hostages to fortune if the Conservatives are to recover. The signs are hopeful but the odds against a fifth Tory term are long. The Party is bruised by the reputational damage that took it to a record poll low of 14 per cent on October 20. Politicos poll of polls shows the Tories adrift of Labour by 26 points.
As for Williamson, he is drinking in the last chance saloon, or ought to be. Though Sunak seems to be riding out the Braverman controversy, and may ride this one out too.
And while media outlets must cover process as well as politics, there’s a big question about whether holding Ministers to account is really the same thing as pile-ons by the media pack.
A last thought plucks at my elbow – namely, that someone, somewhere, must love Gavin Williamson, however unlikely that may seem to you. He is fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means. If you prick him, does he not bleed?