This profile was first published on 16th September 2016, and is now republished following the subject’s promotion to Defence Secretary.
A few days after his fortieth birthday, Gavin Williamson was made Chief Whip by Theresa May. His name is unknown outside his constituency of South Staffordshire, and he has only been in the Commons for six years.
Such rapid promotion to this post is not unprecedented, and can lead to even greater things. In 1955, Edward Heath was made Chief Whip, a key event in his ascent to the prime ministership. In the words of one of his biographers, John Campbell:
“He was not a member of the Cabinet, and was totally unknown to the country; but after less than six years in the House he now occupied a position of greater potential influence than most ministers. He was not yet forty.”
What a warning to Williamson! For although Heath’s career as Chief Whip marked him out as a coming man, his greatest achievement in that role was holding the parliamentary Conservative Party together through the fire of the Suez debacle.
And that in turn meant Heath endured an agonising conflict of loyalties, about which “his conscience was still troubled” in the late 1990s, as Michael McManus relates in Edward Heath: A Singular Life, published this summer.
The trouble was that the Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, with “the full connivance of his chief whip”, had “knowingly misled the House of Commons over Suez”. In his memoirs, Heath relates how “I subjugated my own views and doubts to the overriding need to hold the Conservative Party together at a time of crisis”: words which do not begin to convey the horror of his ordeal.
Williamson has faced nothing like this, and must hope he never will. He has, however, spent three years at the centre of power, as Parliamentary Private Secretary to David Cameron, and in this role gained the confidence of backbenchers who by no means agreed with everything Cameron was doing.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, like Williamson a member of the 2010 intake, says of him:
“He was the ideal PPS for Cameron – he managed to keep the PM connected to the views of the backbenchers. He actually got things sorted out. He’s a thoroughly good egg.”
Another backbencher, who had been in the House for 13 years when Williamson arrived as one of the 147 new Tory MPs elected in 2010, saw other members of that intake deferring to the new boy, and wondered why:
“He looked a bit goofy. He wasn’t a good speaker. I looked him up, and he’d had an undistinguished North Country career. But I gathered he was really big in the candidates’ network. He was also a founder member of the Curry Club [of 2010 backbenchers]. He’s assiduous, helpful, honest and friendly. He’s empathetic.”
While working for Cameron, Williamson was also “omnipresent”, chatting to backbenchers, acting as “a very good listener”, always remembering his job had nothing to do with formulating policy, but was to find out what everyone was thinking and give the Prime Minister an accurate picture.
A member of the 2015 intake said Williamson is “nice and cuddly on the outside, but actually a bit of a bully”, and claimed some MPs are “a bit afraid” of him because in their experience he always spoke with the authority of the Prime Minister.
But how, it may be asked, did Williamson make the leap from Cameron’s PPS to May’s Chief Whip? For the new Prime Minister immediately hurled most of her predecessor’s supporters into outer darkness.
As it happens, part of the answer to this question has been given by Williamson himself, to his local paper, the Express and Star, in which he described what happened immediately after the referendum result, and the resignation on the morning of Friday 24th June of Cameron:
“At the time everyone’s favourite was Boris Johnson. I just couldn’t see it. I knew Theresa was by far the best person for prime minister. She had the right tools for the job. Everyone told me I was wrong and that she couldn’t possibly win, but I sensed the mood of the country. People were looking for someone who is a serious politician who can make tough decisions in challenging times. I just knew instinctively that she was the one.”
So Williamson phoned May and told her he wanted to help her with her campaign. He is said, however, to have checked first whether Cameron would have any objections to such a step, and to have been assured that the outgoing Prime Minister did not.
For although Williamson says Johnson was at this stage “everyone’s favourite”, that was by no means the case inside Number Ten, where it was becoming clear that May was the candidate best placed to stop Johnson, in alliance with Michael Gove, romping to victory.
Within 24 hours of Williamson joining her, May offered him the post of parliamentary campaign manager. In his words:
“I was absolutely flabbergasted, but I accepted immediately. I was ready to get to work. I had a big advantage because the years I spent working with David [Cameron] had allowed me to experience a side of Parliament that very few people get to see. I’ve also worked with the other candidates. I had a good idea of what makes people tick.”
The inside knowledge of the parliamentary party Williamson had amassed while working for Cameron was now placed at May’s disposal, and within days there were claims he was helping to run a “stop Boris” campaign. As the Daily Telegraph reported on Wednesday 29th June, Tory MPs complained
“about an apparently coordinated drive by Government whips to get Mrs May installed as party leader. One Conservative MP said he had been collared by his whip earlier this week while he was voting to ask if he was voting for Mrs May. He said: ‘In breach of Conservative party rules they are ringing around the new intake saying “you must vote for this candidate”. It is clear that the whole of the establishment is backing Theresa May – she is the continuity Cameron cronies candidate.’ Concerns about an officially sanctioned ‘stop Boris’ plot have been raised because Gavin Williamson, Mr Cameron’s Parliamentary Private Seceretary, has been actively campaigning for Mrs May.”
This story was eclipsed by the more dramatic news, on the morning of Thursday 30th June, that Gove had denounced Johnson and decided to run for the leadership himself.
Johnson withdrew from the race, Gove failed to capture the momentum his former ally had enjoyed, and Andrea Leadsom became for a brief period the last, best hope of the stern, unbending Eurosceptics.
Meanwhile the May campaign continued on its quietly professional way, with Williamson embedded within it. As one observer says:
“He did the numbers on Theresa’s campaign, and she was quite captivated by him. She engaged with him more than she did with most people. She was extremely impressed.”
Williamson had seized the chance to show her how well he knows the parliamentary party, about two-thirds of which was first elected in 2010 or 2015. And he is the kind of provincial Conservative she wants to promote as she turns away from the metropolitan types associated with Cameron.
The new Chief Whip was born in Scarborough on 25th June 1976, and educated at Raincliffe School, a comprehensive, followed by Scarborough Sixth Form College and the University of Bradford, where he read social sciences. He is married to Joanne, who was a primary school teacher, and they have two daughters.
Rejecting his parents’ socialism, Williamson served from 2001-05 as a Conservative county councillor in North Yorkshire, before moving to Derbyshire, where he held various party offices, including Chairman of Stoke on Trent Conservative Association. He also stood at the 2005 general election as the Conservative candidate in Blackpool North and Fleetwood.
Owen Paterson, who spent a night on a trawler from Fleetwood in order to witness the devastation being caused by EU net laws, remembers Williamson coming along and being “very helpful”.
While working in the pottery industry, Williamson became known as “the baby-faced assassin”, because of his willingness to take the harsh decisions needed to help his firm survive. In 2010, he succeeded Sir Patrick Cormack as the Member for South Staffordshire, and in his maiden speech praised manufacturers, declaring that “we often have a lot more common sense than bankers”.
He has never served as a whip: a grave disadvantage in his present position. But before working for Cameron, he had been PPS to Patrick McLoughlin.
A former senior Minister said of Williamson: “He does have a pretty cynical and serpentine view of human nature, and that cannot be anything but helpful in his new role.”
“His easy smile, Yorkshire accent and genial quality don’t quite mask a first-class political brain. He might be thought a callow youngster from the sticks. That would be a very, very grave mistake. He makes Francis Urquhart look like Eddie the Eagle.”
This is still the honeymoon period for May and Williamson. No one knows how well they will do when things get rough, but at this stage, no one wants to be seen trying to turn her into a lame duck.
Under the previous regime, George Osborne took a close interest even in the most junior appointments to government. May appears to allow Williamson greater discretion with these, and the Chief Whip has been able to reward two of his mates, Simon Kirby, who is a loyalist and has become Economic Secretary to the Treasury, and Andrew Percy, who was a rebel but is now an Under-Secretary of State in the DCLG, where he is responsible for the Northern Powerhouse.
Williamson is said to value teamwork, loyalty and tribalism, rather than brains, but that cannot be said to be a bad characteristic in a Chief Whip.
When Heath became Chief Whip, he was known for his friendliness towards other MPs. Derek Marks, of the Daily Express, was among those who thought this would be a hindrance: “I still think you have far too much sympathy with the chaps who smoke in the rugger team to make a very good head prefect.”
Heath’s astounding bad manners towards his colleagues, which contributed to his downfall, lay in the future. One trusts Williamson will never deteriorate like that. But his job may never be as easy as it is just now, when the grammar school legislation has not been drafted, and Brexit has scarcely begun.