Out of the shadows: the rise of Gavin Williamson
Before his appointment as Secretary of State for Defence last autumn, Gavin Williamson built a reputation as an effective, and ruthless, backroom operator. His rise from PPS to David Cameron to government Chief Whip to the MoD has been shrouded in intrigue, and there is speculation that he is being lined up as Theresa May’s favoured successor. Is the 41-year-old MP for South Staffordshire really the modern-day Machiavelli some claim? Sebastian Whale talks to Williamson, and those who know him, to find out
“I’m not sure if it’s something you’ve ever thought about, joining the reserves?” asks Gavin Williamson, his green eyes locked firmly on my own.
“I haven’t, no,” I reply, somewhat caught off guard.
He pauses. “Why not?”
“It’s never crossed my mind, really.”
“Don’t you think you could serve your country?” he shoots back. The smile that has been a mainstay of our conversation starts to fade.
“I do, but I guess it’s a time and capacity thing,” I explain.
“So, it’s always something for other people to do?” The grin has completely disappeared now. This must be how errant Tory MPs felt after being summoned to the Whips’ office, I wonder.
“Perhaps,” I concede.
“I’m quite happy to sign you up today,” he says later in our conversation, this time with the smile back on his face. “That’s very kind of you, I’ll have a think about it.” We laugh, though I am uncertain whether it is all a joke. I start to worry that social awkwardness is going to see me leave the Ministry of Defence with a new career and a difficult call to make to my mother.
Heading outside for pictures, I ask Williamson whether he would become a reservist. “Oh, I think I’m a bit too old,” he replies.
It is quite audacious of Williamson to take such a line of questioning. With no military experience to speak of he was appointed Defence Secretary in November 2017 after Michael Fallon resigned over allegations of sexual harassment. Prior to the role, he had never spoken at the despatch box nor run a government department. Never mind having never been a reservist.
But that’s not stopped a meteoric rise to one of the most powerful positions in government, eight years into a parliamentary career. And with much of the journey taking place in roles often unseen, there is much intrigue surrounding this tarantula-owning, 41-year-old from Scarborough.
Gavin Alexander Williamson was born on 25 June 1976 to Labour-supporters Ray and Beverly. His father worked at the local council and his mother at a job centre. Raised in North Yorkshire, he attended Raincliffe School, a state comprehensive, and the Scarborough Sixth Form College. He graduated from the University of Bradford with a BSc in Social Sciences.
Williamson began a career in manufacturing soon after graduating. He worked as managing director of fireplace manufacturer Elgin & Hall until 2004, before going on to become managing director of Aynsley China, a Staffordshire-based pottery firm. In 2001, he married Joanne Eland, with whom he has two children.
Williamson became active in the Conservative party from a young age. He was the penultimate chairman of Conservative Students before its abolition in 1998. He was elected a county councillor in 2001 in North Yorkshire and held leading roles in Conservative associations in the Staffordshire Area, Stoke-on-Trent and Derbyshire Dales.
He first stood for parliament at the 2005 election aged 28, standing in Blackpool North and Fleetwood, where he finished more than 5,000 votes behind Labour MP Joan Humble. Williamson moved to Derbyshire later that year. It was here that he first came across Patrick McLoughlin, then the Conservative Chief Whip and MP for Derbyshire Dales, where Williamson was serving as vice-chair of the local Tory party association.
“I was quite impressed and he was very much a doer and a campaigner,” McLoughlin tells me as we sit down in his parliamentary office overlooking the Thames.
McLoughlin says there was no need to try and cajole Williamson into standing for parliament once more. “I don’t think Gavin needed any encouragement,” he adds with a smile.
Williamson was selected as the Conservative candidate in South Staffordshire for the 2010 general election after the incumbent, Sir Patrick Cormack – now Lord Cormack – announced he was retiring from the Commons. They got to know each other in the run up to May vote. On election day, Cormack was tasked with running the loudspeaker out campaigning after Williamson lost his voice. “It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done because I had to keep remembering to say, ‘vote for Gavin Williamson’, not myself!” the Tory peer recalls.
Williamson was elected with more than 53% of the vote. A party was held in the constituency soon after with George Osborne as guest of honour and speaker. Cormack and Williamson have retained close relations ever since. After a period of ill health in 2011, the newly elected MP offered to drive Cormack down to London each week.
“He is energetic, active, intelligent, personable,” says Cormack. “I think I have as good a relationship with my successor as any other Member could possibly have.”
During his maiden speech, in which he called for the UK to recreate the “Victorian spirit of ingenuity and inventiveness”, Williamson declared himself to be a “straight talker”, like his constituents. “It is nice to have it blunt from others,” he said in June 2010.
In October 2011, Williamson took on his first of four roles as parliamentary private sectary (PPS) by working for Hugo Swire, before being taken on by the minister’s boss in the Northern Ireland Department, Owen Paterson. The following year he began working for McLoughlin, who after seven and a half years as Chief Whip had been made Secretary of State for Transport.
McLoughlin had encouraged David Cameron to take Williamson on as his PPS. “David decided not at that stage. So I said ‘well in that case I’ll have Gavin,’” he says.
The role, which requires you to be the eyes and ears of a Secretary of State in the Commons, was a good fit for Williamson. “He would take it as a challenge to try and make sure that you got as many questions on the order paper at oral questions as possible,” McLoughlin recalls. “He was a good, hard worker. He worked well with Ben Mascall, who of course is now in No 10, and Julian Glover who was then my special adviser.”
In 2013, David Cameron did hire Williamson as his PPS, to replace Sam Gyimah, who had been appointed a government whip. His approach to the position, however, drew the ire of some of his Conservative colleagues. One says he irritated MPs by going about the job in an “over-zealous” often “less than subtle way” as though he was deputy chief whip.
Williamson stayed in the role right through to Cameron’s resignation following the EU referendum. He was given a CBE for political and public service in the subsequent resignation honours list. He ran Theresa May’s bid to become Tory leader after reportedly privately vowing to stop Boris Johnson from taking on the reins.
The gamble paid off. Williamson was rewarded with the position of Chief Whip in May’s first Cabinet. He became famed for keeping a pet tarantula called Cronus on his desk, named after the Greek god who came to power by castrating his father before eating his own children to ensure they would not get rid of him, which he branded a “perfect example of an incredibly clean, ruthless killer”.
Unsure of the fate that has befallen Cronus, I ask Williamson whether he has been replaced. “You can never replace a pet,” he replies. “But he is very happily spending this time in Staffordshire following Easter and no doubt will be back down in the Commons at some point when I next bring him down.”
Gaining a reputation as an effective Chief Whip, Williamson reflected on his approach to the role during the 2017 Tory party conference. “Personally, I don’t much like the stick, but it is amazing what can be achieved with a sharpened carrot,” he said.
Last year’s snap election brought an added dimension to the not inconsiderable challenge of being the government Chief Whip. Williamson played a key role in brokering the £1bn confidence and supply deal with the DUP to prop-up the Conservative minority government, further endearing himself to No 10. Having already helped marshal the Article 50 Bill through the Commons, he faced the challenge of passing more Brexit legislation while looking to temper emboldened Tory Remainers and facing precarious parliamentary arithmetic.
“In extraordinarily difficult circumstances, he clearly was absolutely on top of the business and planning how to deal with it,” says one Tory MP. “He was quite effective in persuading people to stay with the government.”
In November 2017 Michael Fallon resigned as Defence Secretary amid allegations of sexual harassment. Few considered Williamson, who had no ministerial experience to speak of, in the running to succeed him. But the day after Fallon’s resignation was announced, the Yorkshireman was appointed the new Secretary of State at the MoD. The news received immediate, often colourful, criticism. Some suggested that Williamson had effectively carved out the job for himself and knifed his predecessor in the process.
Tory MP Sarah Wollaston tweeted at the time: “There are times when offered a job that it would be better to advise that another would be more experienced & suited to the role.” Another Conservative backbencher tells me: “It was taken slightly badly that it looked like a Chief Whip who rolled the pitch for his own appointment to a new job.”
But Patrick McLoughlin does not harbour such concerns. “I was delighted for him and I think it’s a tough job and I think he’s up to it.”
Lord Cormack, who watched on as Williamson took his first Defence Questions in the Commons, agrees. “I was very pleased for him and I’ve been impressed by the energy with which he’s approached the job. I was very surprised.”
Williamson wasted no time playing to the Tory faithful and to the more hawkish of the British tabloids. In bullish comments, he vowed to hunt down and kill British jihadists who had travelled to Syria, prevented Army dogs from being put down and entered a slanging match with the Treasury for more spending on defence.
This reached a crescendo when Theresa May was, according to the Mail on Sunday, forced to stop a row between Philip Hammond and Williamson in the Commons, which had been brewing following weeks of briefings in the papers.
In the end, a feared fresh round of defence cuts was put on ice and Williamson was given more time to make the case for further spending as part of an MoD-led review announced at the start of this year.
General David Richards, a former Chief of the Defence Staff, has taken note of his eagerness. “I’m very pleased with the interest he has shown and his determination to do better by defence. But, the jury is out. He loses nothing by doing his job which is to push the case for more spending on the Armed Forces,” he says.
“But it’s whether or not he succeeds that will determine one’s judgment. And so, my worry is that despite his strong support, there is essentially a lack of political support within government for defence and the Armed Forces.”
Nia Griffith, the Shadow Defence Secretary, agrees. “I think that we have to wait and see exactly how he makes out in the job. He’s obviously tried to suggest that he will be able to get more money from the Treasury and he’s made quite a lot of noise about that. But I think we are all waiting to see what actually transpires and whether he does win those arguments within the government and within the Cabinet,” she tells me.
Williamson’s rise up the parliamentary food chain has led many to conclude that he covets the top job at Number 10. Conservative MPs speculate that Theresa May wants him to succeed her. But colleagues are said to be “puzzled” by this, I am told, given that the Defence Secretary is not “particularly popular”. One jokes that picking a non-starter for a potential replacement could keep May in Downing Street a little while longer.
Does McLoughlin, who has followed his political career with interest, think he would be a good PM?
“Look, the Commons is littered with future great prime ministers. So, who knows? What he will want to do, because he will take it very seriously, is he will want to do the job of Defence Secretary as best as he can. The future is the future.”
Since the turn of the year, Williamson has turned his attention to Russia. In January he warned that the country wants to cause “so much pain to Britain” that it could launch an attack killing “thousands and thousands and thousands”. The Salisbury attack, where former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were the subject of an attempted assassination by Novichok, a chemical agent, produced Williamson’s most memorable intervention.
During the aftermath of the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats from Britain, Williamson instructed the Kremlin to “go away and shut up”. The backlash was instant. One Tory MP tells me: “That did speak to his lack of experience. It seemed to indicate somebody who just hadn’t really done enough media or the public gaze and hadn’t learned how to calibrate things… It did look ridiculous at the time.
“Of course, Gavin, he’s older than he looks but because he looks very young, I think it kind of compounds some of that. People are always looking for an opportunity to say he’s out of his depth or he’s too inexperienced.”
Griffith adds: “I wouldn’t rate that as the sort of comment I would really want to hear from a Secretary of State representing this country. I would like him to up his game from that to a more dignified, diplomatic and substantiated response, really. It’s very, very important that we maintain a position in the world in which we are respected.”
Others however are more sympathetic. “I wouldn’t disagree with what he said. You just move on from it. Sometimes in politics you get things wrong. It’s inevitable. The problem is that if you’re a minister, almost every word is minutely analysed. I can think of a few times the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said things he’s had to row back on. So, there’s nothing new in that,” says McLoughlin.
Sitting in Williamson’s “beige” office at the Ministry of Defence, as he puts it, he reflects on the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats across the world in response to the events in Salisbury. “I think that sent an incredibly powerful message. It was saying that Russia does stand alone and what it was trying to do in terms of splitting us away from our allies, actually singularly failed.”
He insists that the UK is strengthening its Armed Forces to deal with state-based threats from the likes of Russia. He points to investment in new Type 26 frigates and the recent £132m spent on a new facility for the UK’s new fleet of submarine-hunting Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft at RAF Lossiemouth as examples.
Lord Richards, however, has concerns about the government’s approach on defence and the “parlous” state of the UK’s Armed Forces. “It’s got to be substantial amounts of money that the government must spend on the Armed Forces over the next ten years if they’re to provide or achieve the influence on a day-to-day basis that we need in the post-Brexit era, and secondly, if they are to equip themselves efficiently and effectively in battle, which is our ultimate requirement of them.
“If there is any doubt about that, then the chances of conflict are increased because our opponents will call our bluff or seek to call our bluff. Some of what I’m seeing suggests that we are getting perilously close to that.”
Williamson is keen to look at another battlefront that has opened with Russia in what he calls the “age of disinformation”. It is here that our conversation turns to the reservists. He believes journalists and people with IT and cyber skills could have a role to play in the reserve forces in combatting propaganda from Britain’s enemies.
“In this age where there’s so much disinformation, where Britain’s enemies will use Twitter, will use every angle they can do to change the narrative – people who’ve traditionally thought about joining reserve forces, we want them to come in – but actually, it’s looking to different people who maybe think, as a journalist, well what are my skills in terms of how are they relevant to the Armed Forces?” he explains.
“Actually, they are more relevant today than anything else, having those skills, whether it be journalists, those people with amazing cyber and IT skills, those people with the ability to really understand about getting messages across.
“Warfare is evolving so much and it’s about trying to get a different generation, a different type of people to start thinking ‘I’ve got something to add to the reserve forces.’”
On this fake news agenda, Williamson also has a message for MPs who appear on the Kremlin-backed RT, which is being investigated by Ofcom following its coverage of the Salisbury attack.
“I can’t understand why people would be wishing to go on what is effectively a Russian propaganda channel that’s obviously propagating the lines of the Kremlin. Ultimately people have to make their own choices, but it’s certainly not something that I would advise,” he says.
Amid myriad time pressures, our conversation is kept to below 20 minutes. With Williamson’s eyes peering towards the clock, we move on to Syria. What happens if Assad drops chemical weapons on his own people once more, as he did in Douma last month, and what is the government’s position on regime change?
Williamson says the “brilliantly-carried out strikes” by the RAF last month sent a message that “actions have consequences”.
“The future of Syria is not going to be won by anyone through the violence and the fighting that we’ve seen in Syria. It can only be through a negotiated settlement. What we really need to see happen, you need to see players such as Russia, you need to see players such as Iran who have a great deal of influence on the Syrian regime, start to bring pressure to bear to say, ‘actually, a solution has to be found here’.”
But do we want regime change at the end of it?
“What we want is a peaceful Syria and you need Russia and Iran to start actually playing their part to put pressure on the regime to make sure that that happens.”
Williamson makes a beeline for the door as I repeat the question.
I don’t elicit much from my time with Gavin Williamson. I experience a range of his character traits that others put to me; his sense of humour, elusiveness, unique interpersonal skills, the persuasiveness, a slight air of intimidation as he questions why I don’t want to serve my country.
“Probably he comes across as being one of those people you can’t really know very well. I think the joviality does seem like a mask,” says a Tory MP.
In the days after our meeting, I attend a speech by Williamson at the Churchill War Rooms. The event is an opportunity for the Defence Secretary to layout his vision for the UK Armed Forces post-Brexit. Seeking to evoke the spirit of the former prime minister, Williamson talks of Britain’s influence across the globe.
After the speech, Williamson mingles with the assembled guests, made up of military officials, journalists and politicians.
“Hi Gavin,” I say as he walks by.
“Oh, hello again,” he replies, shaking my hand. His patented broad smile starts to contract once more.
“Have you signed up yet?”