Gavin Williamson Row Shows Culture Of “Exceptionalism” In Politics, Former Cabinet Minister Says
Gavin Williamson is the subject of a complaint by Wendy Morton over text messages he sent to her when she was Chief Whip (Alamy)
Tories trying to play down accusations of bullying and abusive language against Gavin Williamson show some still “think that there are different rules in Westminster” on how to behave, according to a former Cabinet minister.
Chloe Smith, who was work and pensions secretary in Liz Truss's government, said “unfortunately sometimes in politics you do find people who think that [MPs are] special, and there's a kind of exceptionalism” which means different standards are applied.
Speaking on PoliticsHome podcast The Rundown Smith said Williamson’s resignation this week represents an opportunity for Rishi Sunak “to be able to do what he set out” in looking for the “highest standards of professionalism and integrity” in his government.
Williamson stood down from his role as a Cabinet Office minister on Tuesday after a series of allegations about his past conduct, including sending threatening expletive-laden text messages to the former chief whip Wendy Morton, and he is now the subject of a formal investigation.
A number of Tory MPs have attempted to underplay the seriousness of the situation, with George Eustice describing the text row as something “better just sorted out over a cup of tea” rather than turn into an official complaint. Bim Afolami told TalkTV “the stuff with Wendy Morton, I think, was blown out of proportion”, despite the Prime Minister calling the content of the messages “unacceptable”.
Asked if there was a disconnect between how people in politics see such rows to those in other walks of life, Smith told PoliticsHome: “I think unfortunately sometimes in politics you do find people who think that we're special, and there's a kind of exceptionalism, occasionally, about things in Westminster.
"We're very conscious of working in a hugely historical institution in which it's a privilege to work.
“Certainly sometimes it can be tempting to think that there are different rules in Westminster, but it should not be like that.”
On Williamson’s situation, she added: “What we are looking at here, I think, is a clear case of simply the standards that we would all wish to live and work by, and I think this particular case has shown what the better path is.”
Smith, who was sacked from Cabinet by Sunak a fortnight ago, said the allegations against Williamson – which also include that he told a senior civil servant to “slit your throat” – are “extremely disappointing”.
“It's not the kind of standards that we would want to demonstrate in politics, or that people would want to work with in a professional workplace,” said the MP, who also worked in the Whips Office during her decade-long stint as a minister.
“I think it's right that he's gone, and I also think it's a really good opportunity for the Prime Minister to be able to do what he set out – that he's looking for the highest standards of professionalism and integrity.
“That would be to the benefit of politics overall, none of this is helpful for democracy and for the reputation of the House of Commons.
“Great swathes of this are a kind of throwback to sort of House of Cards days, aren't they.”
While Smith said she did not wish to "engage in gossip" about Williamson, who she said is "still a human being,” she did believe the episode was an opportunity to reflect on "some behaviour that appears to have been uncovered".
"Let's take the correct path here, because we don't need to put on display to the British people another version of Westminster behaving badly," she added.
“We’ve got a job to do, and I think, actually, most colleagues’ opinion at this stage would be to get on with that job.”
- For the full interview with Chloe Smith listen to this week's episode of The Rundown, out Friday
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