Who is Gavin Williamson and why does he keep a tarantula on his desk?

'It is amazing what can be achieved with a sharpened carrot'

John Rentoul
Thursday 02 November 2017 13:18 GMT
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Many believe the new Defence Minister (left) was instrumental in ousting the old one
Many believe the new Defence Minister (left) was instrumental in ousting the old one (Instagram)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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The new Defence Secretary was often described as baby-faced when he was Chief Whip, partly because he is only 41 and partly because it makes him sound like someone out of House of Cards. Williamson is so young – when those different attitudes prevailed 10 or 15 years ago of which Michael Fallon spoke, Williamson was in his twenties – that he has an active Instagram account, featuring photos of him with cats and Daleks.

As Chief Whip, Williamson kept a tarantula called Cronus on his desk. Cronus was the youngest of the Titans, which may or may not be a commentary on the state of modern politics, who ate his children, which sounds sinister but is evidence more of Williamson’s sense of humour than of a threatening side.

Like most chief whips he has to rely on positive inducements more than intimidation. In his conference speech in Manchester last month he said he preferred the carrot to the stick, “but it is amazing what can be achieved with a sharpened carrot”.

Lisa Nandy, the Labour MP, yesterday drew attention to some of the darker practices of parliamentary whips in the past, when she asked the Prime Minister about claims that whips in the 1970s used allegations of child sex abuse to coerce MPs into voting the right way.

That kind of thing would not be possible in the modern media or political culture, but in many ways the most significant appointment in today’s limited reshuffle was that of Esther McVey to be the Government’s Deputy Chief Whip. Theresa May plainly recognised the importance of having a woman in the previously all-male group of four senior whips.

McVey is a Brexiteer and was a minister who lost her seat in 2015 before coming back for George Osborne’s former seat of Tatton this year, but as a woman provides some assurance that the whips’ office is not going to be some public-school den of misogyny and bullying.

Gavin Williamson enters Ministry of Defence as the new Defence Secretary

The downside of Williamson’s promotion to the Ministry of Defence is that some Tory MPs are bound to grumble that he has benefited from enforcing discipline. Williamson would have been consulted by the Prime Minister before she issued her ultimatum to Michael Fallon. We can assume from the absence of warm praise for her in his resignation letter that Fallon felt he had been pushed out. Presumably Theresa May asked for a guarantee that there would be no further or worse embarrassments than the case of Julia Hartley-Brewer’s knee, and he felt unable to give it. But the grumble is that the custodian of ethical standards in the parliamentary Conservative Party, the Chief Whip, has benefited personally from someone else’s breach of them.

There have also been acid comments about Williamson getting out before the deluge of difficult Brexit legislation starts to go through the House of Commons. The EU Withdrawal Bill, trailing 400 amendments each of which could potentially be voted on, returns to the floor of the Chamber the week after next.

Williamson had already developed the Cameron-era tactic of ordering his MPs to abstain on awkward votes called by the Opposition that the Government looked like losing. He came unstuck last night because Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary, had found a counter-tactic of framing Labour’s motion as a “humble address” to Her Majesty. This was carried, without a division, and the Government is now forced to publish its Brexit impact assessments, although it is going to censor anything that undermines the UK’s negotiating position.

Williamson’s successor, his former deputy Julian Smith, will need to be a Titan to keep the Government’s business on track in a hung parliament.

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