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Sun, 14 April 2024

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ANALYSIS: Gavin Williamson - the baby-faced assassin who became Defence Secretary

3 min read

News that Gavin Williamson is the new Defence Secretary certainly raised a few eyebrows in the Westminster village this morning.


The former Chief Whip is a surprise appointment at a tumultuous time for the Tory party.

Members of the public and most of the defence establishment will probably greet the appointment with a ‘Who?’, perhaps followed by a quick Google search.

While the Yorkshireman is far from a household name, he has been quietly advancing up the Tory ranks since entering Parliament in 2010.

"Good move," was the clipped response from one Tory grandee, while another frontbencher said the promotion was "surprising" but there was "no real hostility to it".

Others were less approving of the move, claiming that - in true House of Cards style - he had a hand in Michael Fallon's demise and then effectively appointed himself to his new role.

One former minister told PoliticsHome: "You've got a situation where people are openly saying that Gavin Williamson appointed himself Defence Secretary - that is not good for the Prime Minister."

"Deeply unhappy" and "appalling" were some other reactions from Tory MPs angry at his promotion - which Number 10 insisted was the Prime Minister's decision alone. 

Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative chair of the Health Select Committee, made clear her unease about his appointment on Twitter.

One Labour MP was even less charitable: "Gavin Williamson? Jesus wept. They won't exactly be sh*tting themselves in Pyongyang at that news."

The appointment is certainly a curveball, given Williamson has never run a Whitehall department and has little apparent interest in defence.

Nevertheless, he has the sort of CV Tory strategists dream of – a state school-educated northerner who helped turn around a small business in the Potteries before entering Parliament in 2010.

Williamson’s political journey started young. He became a county councillor in 2001 at the age of 25 before contesting Blackpool North and Fleetwood at the 2005 general election.

That was a prelude to a successful run five years later at the safe Tory seat of South Staffordshire, where he won convincingly and has added to his majority in the two subsequent elections.

Having operated in the background at Westminster for several years, first as David Cameron’s PPS, and latterly as Chief Whip, the defence brief will see him properly thrust into the media spotlight for the first time.

Quiet and self-deprecating - he once told a journalist who asked him to lunch he couldn't understand why he had any interest in him at all - Williamson is also steely and hugely ambitious, doing little to hide his desire to one day be Prime Minister.

He also appears to have an eye for the macabre, raising eyebrows by acquiring a pet tarantula named Cronus as his Whips Office pet.

“Cronus is a perfect example of an incredibly clean, ruthless killer,” he told the Telegraph last year, with just the faintest hint of irony.

A TILT AT THE TOP?

With half the Cabinet seemingly vying for Theresa May's job, talk will surely turn to Williamson's prospects of taking over.

A young relative unknown with an 'ordinary working family' background may be just the ticket for the Tory faithful - and the wider public. 

Political historians might note a few parallels with Ted Heath, another former Chief Whip who used that position as a springboard for the top job.

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