Rishi Sunak's Fragile Authority Has Been "Badly Damaged" By Gavin Williamson Scandal
Rishi Sunak leaves 10 Downing Street to partake in PMQs (Alamy)
Rishi Sunak is just 19 days into his premiership, but already he is facing questions about his political judgement after another week dominated by tensions over his contentious Cabinet appointments.
On Tuesday, Gavin Williamson resigned from his Cabinet Office role over allegations of bullying, including an informal Downing Street investigation into claims he told a senior civil servant to "slit your throat". He also faces formal investigations by parliamentary authorities and the Conservative party over abusive text messages to former chief whip Wendy Morton, who he accused of blocking him from attending the Queen's funeral.
Williamson's latest fall – the third time he has been sacked from Cabinet in as many years – offered vindication for those already questioning Sunak's political judgement after he appointed the notoriously heavy-handed South Staffordshire MP to a senior government role in the first place.
“It’s reflected very badly on [Sunak]. He’s been damaged," a former Cabinet minister told PoliticsHome.
“Rishi was elected in 2015. He has been around long enough to know what [Williamson] is like. I cannot believe it was beyond his knowledge that he was an unpleasant man.
"He was an unpleasant and overbearing chief whip who made lots of MPs unhappy for no good reason. His comments to Wendy Morton were despicable."
When the Williamson allegations emerged last week, Sunak was already embroiled in a row over his reappointment of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary just six days after she was forced to stand down from the same role in Liz Truss's brief government over a security breach. Braverman has subsequently faced intense criticism over her contentious response to the small boats crisis, and has been accused of ignoring warnings that migrants were being illegally detained.
The former Cabinet minister PoliticsHome spoke to suggested that Sunak would benefit from having some more experienced Tory figures around him to guide him through the first few months as Prime Minister in order to avoid errors like the Williamson fiasco.
"I’m pretty sure if Rishi had asked Iain Duncan Smith whether he should appoint Williamson, he would have said: ‘Don’t touch him with a disinfected barge pole'," they said.
Another former secretary of state, who is a big supporter of Sunak, admitted that they had misgivings about his decision to bring Williamson into government, noting that while he might have been "loved" during his spell as David Cameron's Parliamentary Private Secretary, there was now much "less warmth" for him among MPs.
"He has overdosed on House of Cards," they told PoliticsHome.
Conservative MP Chloe Smith, who served as work and pensions secretary in the six-week Truss government, argued on this week's episode of PoliticsHome podcast The Rundown that Williamson's departure was a "really good opportunity" for Sunak to reaffirm the message he set out in his first speech as Prime Minister two weeks ago that he is looking for "the highest standards of professionalism and integrity" in the government that he leads.
With party stability and unity among his most urgent priorities after a tumultuous year for the government, something which thanks to Williamson and Braverman has not yet abated, Sunak has embarked on a campaign of proactive backbench outreach.
This week he hosted dozens of Conservative MPs for drinks in Downing Street, which according to one backbencher who attended saw all sections of the party represented, including the "waifs and strays". With next week's Autumn Statement looming, Sunak will need as many Conservative MPs on side as possible.
The Sunak government is now focused on delivering a small number of what the Prime Minister deems to be high-priority issues.
One former Cabinet minister praised what they described as the new regime's focused approach. They said the decisions to restore the fracking ban and scrap the Truss plan to move the UK embassy in Israel to Jerusalem as examples of the Prime Minister doing away with unnecessary distractions.
“If it isn’t mission critical, the approach is: ‘fuck it’," they told PoliticsHome.
This includes ending the long-standing practice of Downing Street sending a minister out to the morning media five days a week as the newly-assembled Sunak operation considers ways of communicating policy more effectively, PoliticsHome understands.
While for now Braverman remains as Home Secretary, No 10 is said to have taken direct control of tackling the small boats issue as Sunak looks for a major breakthrough on one of the biggest and most salient challenges facing his government. Her Home Office collague, immigration minister Robert Jenrick, is now believed to be reporting directly to No 10 on the backlog of processing asylum claims.
"Suella doesn’t own the policy any more," said a source familiar with the situation.
Jenrick, a close ally of the Prime Minister, is tipped as a future Home Secretary.
On Tuesday Downing Street hosted a roundtable with Conservative MPs to discuss Channel crossings as talks with the French government over a potential deal to tackle smuggling gangs continue at pace. There are discussions about a UK-France summit in the near future amid hopes that the two governments can reach an agreement on asylum seekers by the end of the year.
It has been a fairly shaky start to life in No 10 for Sunak, and next week's Autumn Statement looks set to be a bitter pill for MPs to swallow, not least those in marginal seats where constituents continue to fill their inboxes with fears around the cost of living crisis.
On Friday morning, the Chancellor warned the UK faces “a tough road ahead” after new ONS figures showed the economy contracted by 0.2 per cent between July and September, signalling the start of a recession
The pivotal few weeks ahead present Sunak with an opportunity to hit his stride if he can convince MPs and the country that an anticipated agenda of stealth tax rises and significant spending cuts can pave the way out of the current economic crisis and towards a more prosperous future. But they could also lead him into much rockier territory.
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