“It would be a mistake to be fooled by Craig’s jolly exterior; he’s sharp as a razor”: Meet Craig Williams
Craig Williams (Illustration: Tracy Worrall)
If you had asked Craig Williams 10 years ago what he would be doing today, he would have said running a pub. But instead of pulling pints, Williams came to Westminster. Now, as the PM’s PPS, Sophie Church meets the man on the rise in Parliament. Illustration by Tracy Worrall
Portcullis House during summer recess can be a strange place. Contractors lounge on sofas, hard hats gently rocking on the floor. Police officers enjoy leisurely lunches. Catering staff serenely pass through the Debate, repositioning signs on the restaurant’s tables as they go. MPs are conspicuously absent.
Today, the sun is strong, and those present have collected at the edges of the atrium, seeking spots of shade. It is here that The House meets Craig Williams, Conservative MP for Montgomeryshire, and parliamentary private secretary to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
As we sit down – Williams glancing nervously at my notes while taking a gulp of iced americano – a Conservative MP approaches. “I’m beginning to think you’re working too hard,” he says to Williams, before picking up seemingly mid-conversation on his summer travel plans: Spain in September; cool weather, cheap flights.
“Comes with the territory; you have to talk to everyone,” Williams says, when the MP has walked away.
At just 38 years old, Williams has, as the Conservative MP Heather Wheeler puts it, had a “really quite meteoric rise” up the parliamentary ladder.
Though he recounts the loss of his Cardiff North seat in 2017 with a sense of inevitability – recognising the irony of then chancellor Philip Hammond telling him not to be so glum when the snap election was called – he was elected to his home seat of Montgomeryshire in 2019.
“Losing the seat really was a wake-up call for him and it also meant that when he won the new seat … it made him focus on what he’s really good at in Parliament,” says Wheeler.
That talent, as evidence suggests, was being a PPS. Since returning to Parliament in 2019, Williams has acted as PPS to former chief secretary to the Treasury Steve Barclay, and as Rishi Sunak’s PPS when he was chancellor.
He’s often known to say in meetings things like: ‘Trust the people, the people are always right'
Now, Williams has been described by one MP as the “most effective prime minister’s PPS” they have ever seen. How does that praise feel?
“Well, that’s very kind of them. I want to know what they want!” Williams says with a peal of laughter. “If anyone is nice to you in this role, it normally comes with, ‘I would quite like: insert position, insert ask’. So that’s very kind of them. You know, I’ve worked with the person I’ve PPS’d for for a long, long time now, so it’s a good team.”
“It’s” a good team, or “we’re” a good team? Williams seemingly can’t take the credit. In this vein, he goes on to say that the Prime Minister relies on a string of MPs to understand how backbenchers are truly feeling, not just him.
While this may be true, Simon Hart, Conservative MP for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, says he “can’t overstress how much the PM knows that he can rely on Craig … [for] a clear, honest, thoughtful appraisal of life as it is, not as he might like it to be … but he also does it with, being Craig, great humour”.
Williams recognises that he provides the Prime Minister with a good baseline and check. “It comes back to the authentic nature that there was clearly an existing relationship between me and him, and people know that,” he reasons, “and it’s not without having been tested over the years.”
On the subject of dealing with tough times in the Treasury and No 10, Williams points to the greys that have emerged above his ears. I suggest, for a laugh, he look at the pictures online of politicians before and after their time in office.
“Don’t say that to me!” he cries, “I’m greyer and fatter than I was a couple of years ago. I’ll have to do something about one of those. I can’t un-grey, but I can probably un-fat.”
From No 10, all roads lead back to Portcullis House: Williams’s office as he sees it. It is here he will sit and drink coffee throughout the day – he has recently started watching his caffeine and alcohol intake – engaging with any MP who wants to chat.
The role is “a mixture of a confidant, a therapist, a friend, a shoulder to cry on, somebody to celebrate with”, he explains. Most importantly, Williams says, MPs need to know they have been heard.
While Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho, who was a PPS in the Treasury at the same time as Williams, judges him to have a very high EQ (as in ‘emotional quotient’), and to be very open, she says that “it would be a mistake to be fooled by Craig’s jolly exterior; he’s sharp as a razor”.
Williams reveals this cloistered cunning when describing his childhood spent in rural Montgomeryshire. “I spent a lot of time with my grandparents doing the Royal British Legion … so I probably learnt the gift of the gab from doing that multiple times,” he says.
But it would be a mistake to think his only gift was amiability. Growing up in a large family, with cousins dotted around the surrounding hills and valleys, Williams says “there has always been a very social side” to his life. However, his decision to go into politics was unexpected.
“All my family are either in farming or carpentry. When I was about 16, I put a circular saw through my thumb, so it hollowed it all out,” he says, opening his hand to point to his damaged thumb, “and I thought that’s not for me … I’m a proper black sheep of the family.”
Still, in a rural community, Williams says “you get up and you do things for yourself … you make your own destiny”. Small-state Conservatism, then, was naturally appealing. “He’s got an aversion to the nanny state,” agrees one MP. “He’s often known to say in meetings things like: ‘Trust the people, the people are always right.’”
Williams says going back to Montgomeryshire is incredibly grounding. And if he ever has a problem to solve in his village, he will try the locals in the pub first, then Google. Coutinho recalls Williams taking her to the Great British Beer Festival. “He turns to me at one point with his pint of Monty’s … in hand, and he says: ‘Claire, these are my people’.”
For now, Williams, unsurprisingly, wants to win the general election. And while he can see himself “being PPS to the end of this Parliament”, he is less clear about whether he’d like to remain as a PPS beyond that.
“As PPS to the prime minister, everyone goes: ‘That was the best job I’ve ever had, and you’ll regret it when you leave.’ And I can see how you regret it. But equally, this job is exhausting.”
So, what else does he want to achieve in life? After a long, long pause, Williams says he is not sure he can answer; he is only 38, and – typically modest – he still has his training wheels on.
“If you’d have asked me 10 years ago, what would I be doing now? I don’t think I’d be saying I was the MP for Montgomeryshire and PPS to the Prime Minister.”
So what would he have said? “A decade ago?” Another pause. “Running a pub somewhere.”
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