The only Chief Whip to have become Conservative leader was Edward Heath. It isn’t premature to ask if the new Defence Secretary could be the second.
Gavin Williamson’s name doesn’t set the world alight outside Westminster, but it is more than capable of raising the temperature within it. ConservativeHome hears mixed reports.
Some allege that he is a deft operator, an improver of the whips office, an outstanding handler of Commons business – he never lost a vote – and “assiduous, helpful, honest and friendly”, in the words of a colleague quoted in an Andrew Gimson profile.
Others are less complimentary. They claim that his vote management is rigid and fearful, that he is careless with Commons propriety, and that his manner with some colleagues is – a loaded word in this climate – bullying.
What is certain is that he is a bit less backward about coming forward than most of his predecessors. Conservative Chief Whips have tended to have no ambitions of their own; not so long ago, this was almost a qualification for the post.
From Martin Redmayne through Humphrey Atkins through Patrick McLoughlin to George Young, they have tended to be figures who, while maintaining a certain distance from the Party leader, accepted the existence above their heads of a glass ceiling.
There have been exceptions: Michael Gove, Andrew Mitchell. But it is rare for a Chief Whip to face outward in the Westminster Village. Williamson has been doing so a bit.
He introduced a session with new MPs to the Conservative Conference in October. His role in last year’s Tory leadership election was made much of in the recent TV docu-drama Theresa v Boris. Then there is the business with the tarantula.
For a Prime Minister to move the Chief Whip when the Government has no majority would usually be read as a sign that she has no confidence in him. This surely cannot be the case here.
After all, Theresa May appointed Williamson to the whips office in the first place. He thus made the transformation from a David Cameron intimate – he was the former Prime Minister’s PPS – to a May one: evidence of his utility and dexterity.
Furthermore, she would scarcely send someone to the Ministry of Defence about whom she had doubts. The Armed Forces nexus at the department liked Michael Fallon. It is bound to have reservations about Williamson, simply because it doesn’t know him.
The new Defence Secretary came up through the Party network of local government and Association office. The generals will fear that he will simply do the Treasury’s bidding. We suspect that they may be agreeably surprised.
Williamson was a member of an eleven-name long list of people we named in July as possible future entrants for our regular Next Tory Leader survey. Now that Cronus is moving to the Ministry of Defence, it is timely to put him in – Williamson, that is.
On second thoughts, perhaps the tarantula will stay in the Whips Office. Julian Smith, Williamson’s replacement and his former deputy, has been a close colleague of the new Defence Secretary. Williamson’s influence will linger on.
ConservativeHome will not be alone in wondering what conversations have taken place between May and Williamson during the next few days. Did May suggest the move? Did Williamson in some way float the idea himself?
This is how Michael Gove is reported to have ended up in the job under Cameron. That didn’t go too well. Nor for that matter did Heath’s Government.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Instead, it’s right to wish Williamson luck; record his abilities, story and rise – and note his way of getting and keeping ahead.
So “the baby-faced assassin”, as he was known when he worked in the pottery industry, now has charge of the armed forces. Some will ask whether his tanks are already on Downing Street’s lawn.