Following the resignation of Sir Michael Fallon on Wednesday, Gavin Williamson, who has been chief whip for the Conservative Party since July 2016 and has no previous ministerial experience, has been appointed as UK Defence Secretary.
Fallon claimed that he no longer felt able to continue, stating that his behaviour had “fallen short” of expected standards. This followed allegations that he had inappropriately touched journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer. Fallon is the highest-profile member of a wider ‘dirty dossier’ that is said to feature 36 Conservative politicians accused of sexual misconduct.
A rapid rise
The timing could not have been better for Gavin Williamson. Most famous for keeping a menacing tarantula that prowled his desk throughout his time as chief whip, Mr Williamson is an exciting prospect for the Conservative party at a time when the wider public perception of the party is one of stagnancy combined with incompetance.
Described as “cunning” by the media, Williamson’s break came under David Cameron when he was appointed as his Parliamentary Private Secretary in 2013. This allowed Williamson to keep one foot in the government but also an ear to the ground on the backbenches. Such experience has left him with an intimate understanding of the Conservative party machine. Following Cameron’s resignation, Williamson then backed Theresa May as his successor, privately vowing to prevent Boris Johnson from becoming Prime Minister, according to George Eaton of the New Statesman.
Heavily backing the winning candidate saw him made Theresa May’s campaign manager and then Chief Whip, in charge of maintaining discipline in the House of Commons. Now aged 41, the Yorkshireman has been promoted into a senior position when his champion is at her weakest. Watchers of House of Cards will no doubt see shades of Frank Underwood in Mr Williamson’s meteoric rise since 2013.
Tory MPs cry foul
Perhaps Theresa May’s Chief Whip was unaware of the allegations facing Mr Fallon and was promoted on merit alone but it’s hard to look past the proximity of Gavin Williamson to the Prime Minister. His place in Theresa May’s inner circle and the speed of both Fallon’s resignation and Williamson’s promotion offer cynics plenty of ammunition.
The backlash was inevitable but has nevertheless been scathing. MPs have described him as “self-serving” and “a disastrous appointment”, calling it Theresa May’s “biggest and probably last mistake.” His inexperience, coupled with the timing, is likely to rile many Conservatives who believe an experienced Defence Secretary would have been a more sensible appointment.
Though one might spin the appointment as the Prime Minister proactively searching for fresh, young faces to bring into the cabinet, it is still regarded as a manifestation of her much-scorned political fragility.
A nod to the future
Youth is certainly what the Ministry of Defence now boasts at its helm. Mr Williamson is the youngest ever to hold the position since the post was established during the Second World War and has no military experience to his name. The promotion comes at a challenging time for a department that is having to deal with a high threat of terrorism, a security and defence review and the expectation of having to make £20bn of efficiency cuts.
Is Gavin Williamson however, the future of the Conservative party? For all the criticism he has faced, the party is clinging to power by the skin of its teeth, languishing in the polls. Perhaps what the Conservative party needs is a sociable, young MP known for networking in the bars of Westminster. Perhaps Williamson, a marketable addition to an electorally-unappealing and old cabinet, has surfaced just when the party needs him most?
Might Gavin Williamson even become the future of the country? After all, Tony Blair had never served in government until he won the 1997 landslide. Given the shadowy and opportunistic nature of Williamson’s appointment, the tarantula becomes an easy metaphor to employ. Previously, when asked by the Houses of Parliament to get rid of the spider, Williamson replied: “You have to look at different ways to persuade people to vote with the government.”
The tarantula’s name, Cronus, is derived from Greek mythology – a god who castrated his father and ate his children. Williamson is well aware of the symbolism: “Cronus is a perfect example of an incredibly clean, ruthless killer.”