The promotion of Theresa May’s chief whip Gavin Williamson to the prized role of defence secretary hasn’t gone down well with some of her MPs, party insiders told BuzzFeed News.
The shock resignation of Sir Michael Fallon after allegations of improper behaviour opened up a big role in the cabinet, and Williamson wasn’t one of the names floated as a potential replacement.
Some insiders were stunned when Williamson’s appointment was announced on Thursday morning. A minister told BuzzFeed News it had "gone down like a cup of cold sick". “Person with power over promotions promotes himself shock!” one senior Tory MP said.
Another senior MP said backbenchers are “livid” at Williamson’s elevation, and that some will now feel even less loyalty to a leader whose grip on office was already tenuous.
“It’s her biggest and probably last mistake,” the MP told BuzzFeed News.
The appointment only underlines the weakness of 10 Downing Street, the MP added, and “demonstrated that what counts is dark arts not good politics”.
The feeling among backbench colleagues is that Williamson and his deputy, Julian Smith, who has been promoted to chief whip to replace Williamson, have exploited May’s weakness to advance their own careers.
Sarah Wollaston MP, chair of the health select committee, tweeted: “There are times when offered a job that it would be better to advise that another would be more experienced & suited to the role.”
Another party insider said May had missed an opportunity to appoint a fresh face to the cabinet who would’ve been agreeable to different factions of the party.
Others who were thought to be in the frame were Tobias Ellwood, the popular defence minister, and Penny Mordaunt, a minister in the Department for Work and Pensions who was previously the minister for the armed forces.
Williamson — a former parliamentary aide to David Cameron who led Theresa May’s leadership campaign last summer — has been portrayed in the press as a savvy political operator who knows the dirt on his colleagues and how to exploit the parliamentary system to get what he wants.
Known as the “baby-faced assassin”, he famously keeps a tarantula in his office and is feared by his political opponents. He is also trusted by the prime minister, according to May’s aides.
Privately, however, many Tory MPs question that description and say Williamson is not as effective as his reputation suggests.
He is not well-liked, some insiders say, has never run a department, and has no experience in defence.
Some observers questioned the wisdom of moving the chief whip at a time when the government is fragile and every vote it faces in the House of Commons is on a knife-edge.
The decision to promote Williamson did receive some support, not least from May's former chief of staff Nick Timothy and former minister Nick Boles.
Chief whips normally have a say over ministerial reshuffles, but May’s official spokesman told journalists on Thursday morning that Williamson was not involved in the conversations about who should replace Fallon.
The spokesperson refused to comment on whether Williamson had sufficient experience to run the defence department, or to answer questions about what Williamson knew about Fallon’s past before the defence secretary resigned on Wednesday.
In political parties, the whips' office is responsible for spotting potential problems and dealing with them before they blow up into public scandals.
“Gavin Williamson was an excellent and hard-working chief whip and the prime minister thinks he will make an excellent defence secretary,” the spokesperson said.
May’s spokesperson also declined to comment on whether she had considered appointing a woman to the position for the first time.