Gavin Williamson, aka “the baby-faced assassin,” has been a rising star in the UK’s Conservative Party ever since Theresa May unexpectedly became Prime Minister in June 2016.
His swift ascent up the greasy pole has often, not without justification, been compared to that of the character Francis Urquhart in the original British version of House of Cards. The parallels became even starker when, like Urquhart, he made the jump from Chief Whip to a senior cabinet position.
Now Secretary of State for Defence, he acquired the position following the sudden resignation of his predecessor, Sir Michael Fallon. Sir Michael had been accused of inappropriately touching journalist Juliet Hartley-Brewer’s knee during a 2002 interview. In the white-hot heat of the early #MeToo campaign, Sir Michael was pushed out. Rumours that Williamson played a part in the pushing only served to reinforce his reputation as a political operator extroadinaire.
How ironic then that having risen so deftly to one of the top positions of government power, Williamson is now making a total mess of staying on. Revelations of his own past inappropriate behaviour surfaced on Thursday, followed by some very clumsy and counterproductive manoeuvring to keep the scandal tamped down.
Gavin Williamson couldn’t possibly comment
On Thursday January 25, Williamson’s lawyers refused to answer questions from journalists at the Guardian about a fling that took place between 2003-4 with a junior employee while working as a manager at the fireplace firm Elgin & Hall.
Williamson then went on, later that same day, to give an interview with the Daily Mail, in which he appeared to come clean with all details.
“I had a good relationship with everyone I worked with, but with one person this started to develop into something more,” he told the Mail.
“We had to travel together and spent a lot of time in each other’s company, the relationship became flirtatious and a couple of times we shared a kiss.
“It never went further than that, but this had a profound impact on us both and those close to us. It was a dreadful mistake and stopped as suddenly as it had started.”
At first this appeared to be more deft political manoeuvring by Williamson. There was even speculation that he had leaked the story himself to “clear the decks,” so to speak, before a possible bid for the Conservative Party leadership should Theresa May resign.
But then things started to go wrong for Gavin Williamson.
A military diversion
Following the Mail interview Williamson took part in an interview in the Daily Telegraph with the alarming headline “How Russia could attack Britain’s infrastructure: targeting power grid, cutting internet cables and fake news.”
Williamson’s political rivals smelled a rat, or at least an attempt to divert attention from his indiscretion, and two days later a story in the Times contained the following allegation:
“The battle to succeed Theresa May erupted into fresh acrimony last night as top Tories traded blows over whether Gavin Williamson leaked intelligence last week to distract attention from an extramarital ‘flirtation.'”
Unsurprisingly, a Ministry of Defence spokesperson later denied that their boss had leaked any intelligence, saying, “There has been no leak of intelligence on this subject from either the Secretary of State or the Ministry of Defence.”
Then, over the weekend, allies of Gavin Williamson were quoted in the Sunday Times blaming the attempt to smear Williamson with leaking intelligence on his cabinet rival Boris Johnson. An anonymous friend was quoted as saying, “This is an attempt to smear a cabinet minister in an attempt to promote the leadership campaign of someone else.”
Considering that across the Atlantic President Trump appears able to bat away allegations of illicit affairs with porn stars without any trouble whatsoever, it seems bizarre that so much fuss could be made over two kisses with a co-worker over thirteen years ago.
Why didn’t Williamson just let the story blow over, as it may have easily done?
What’s going on?
Perhaps the best explanation for this enormously damaging episode of Tory infighting was given by James Forsyth on the Spectator magazine’s Coffee House Shots podcast on Monday. In it he said:
“The Gavin Williams policy has always been to kind of bring a machine gun to a knife fight if you see what I mean. And when this row got going about people in Whitehall complaining that he was risking a diplomatic incident by massively stoking tensions with Moscow to try to distract attention from his personal indiscretions, most people would have kind of worn that for a day or two. Instead we have friends of Gavin Williamson giving quotes to the Sunday Times, making it quite clear that they think Boris Johnson is behind this…
“His camp go on the attack at every opportunity, and that has served him well in pushing him to the front of the queue. I don’t think a year ago many people were tipping Gavin Williamson for the leadership, but the question is whether this all ends up blowing up in his face or not.”
Blowing up in his face
By setting the bar for a senior cabinet resignation at a decade-old inappropriate touching of a knee in Sir Michael Fallon’s case, Gavin Williamson is struggling to fend off a decade old brace of inappropriate kisses. While Ms Hartley-Brewer laughed off accounts of the knee-touching, it is clear that former fireplace colleague was very upset by Williamson’s actions. Could a long-forgotten event that happened long below his political career even began sink Gavin Williamson?
It may all come down to whether or not further allegations surface that continue to keep the story in the news cycle. So far, things are not looking good.
The impression Williamson gave in his Daily Mail interview that he had left his position at Elgin & Hall voluntarily for the sake of his marriage is coming under increasing scrutiny. In a follow-up article, the Mail quoted another employee from the time saying, “I came to work one day and saw the woman going into the operation manager’s office. She was very upset and her colleagues were comforting her. She was very tearful and was in there a long time. It was obvious something very stressful was going on.”
Questions about whether or not Williamson left because of company disciplinary procedures remain unanswered.
According to an unnamed senior minister quoted by the Mail, everything hinges on the accuracy of Williamson’s original account.
“If the account he gave last week turns out to be inaccurate then he is in deep trouble,” they said. “Given he knifed Michael Fallon to get his job he is not exactly popular with colleagues as it is. If it turns out there are holes in his story then he is toast.”
Toast or top Tory? Time will tell.