Political mystery of how Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is still in post - Tom Richmond

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Education Sectreary Gavin Williamson. Picture: Sam McKeown,

AT least Chris Grayling – remember him? – did not shirk all media interviews when Transport Secretary. ‘Old Failing’ even deigned to visit The Yorkshire Post, his fiercest critics, at one point.

The same cannot be said for Gavin Williamson, another abject failure of a Minister whose continuing presence in the Cabinet is, frankly, an insult to the nation’s intelligence.

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Not only did Williamson – and his team – cancel their planned interview with this newspaper during a recent visit to Bradford, but he continues to snub one of the nation’s broadcasters.

Today marks the second anniversary of Boris Johnson’s premiership – and the appointment of Scarborough-born Williamson to the critical post of Education Secretary despite no previous background in this sphere of policy.

Yet, in the past two years, he’s also turned down every single interview request with Channel 4 News – an agenda-setting current affairs programme that is willing to cover the big issues in depth and give a firm but fair hearing to its guests.

I’ve lost count of the number of occasions when the likes of Jon Snow, Cathy Newman, Krishnan Guru-Murthy and Matt Frei have ended a report on education – most recently schools catch-up funding – by announcing that their request for an interview with Williamson had been refused.

And this matters because education is one of the most important policy briefs of all – even more so in the wake of the Covid pandemic and the importance of skills to the supposed ‘levelling up’ agenda.

A half-capable Minister (and the aforementioned Grayling never reached this elevated status) should be able to defend decisions and debate policy – deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam took part in a Q&A with Channel 4 viewers .

A Channel 4 News statement to this newspaper says: “There are a multitude of questions we would like to ask on behalf of our millions of viewers on schools and education especially during a Covid pandemic when clear communication is so vital, and as our audience skews young and we have the biggest following on social media of any TV news programme.

“We are disappointed and baffled that the Secretary of State feels able to ignore this audience, and also refuses to be scrutinised but we live in hope this can be resolved and he is able to appear on Channel 4 News as other Cabinet Ministers, and the Prime Minister, have in this crucial period.”

In response, the DfE said this: “The Secretary of State always speaks to ITN, which produces Channel 4 News, when he does interview rounds with major broadcasters and that footage is available to Channel 4 News. They also get statements from him in the same way as all other news outlets.”

Asked if Williamson had any agenda with the programme – perhaps coverage of his sacking as Defence Secretary for leaking sensitive information – Williamson’s spokesperson was even more terse. “We’ve nothing further to add,” they said.

But I do. The mystery is not so much Williamson’s mishandling of the media in the wake of so many policy fiascos and U-turns, but why he was appointed in the first place and why he’s still in post at a time when the futures of so many children depend on the presence in the Cabinet of an Education Secretary who is competent, communicative and able to stand up for their interests.

And, frankly, virtually anyone would be better than Gavin Williamson – with the exception, perhaps, of Chris Grayling.

I DON’T know what was more shocking – revelations in Michael Wolff’s new book Landslide that Donald Trump contemplated calling off last November’s election or unelected adviser Dominic Cummings wanting to oust Boris Johnson within days of his victory in the 2019 general election?

As for the claim by Cummings that he had to act at that time, and in early 2020, to stop ‘clowns’ being appointed to senior roles by the PM’s partner, didn’t he realise that many had already been appointed on his watch? Like Gavin Williamson.

I CRINGED when I listened to the BBC’s analysis of Boris Johnson’s press conference on Monday about the lifting of the lockdown.

I lost count of the number of times that political correspondent Helen Catt used the phrase ‘I think’ on Radio 5 Live as the role of the BBC is to offer ‘news’ rather than their own ‘views’.

And then it registered – she’s not to blame when there’s a Prime Minister so full of bluster that even he doesn’t know what he’s meant to think or say.

HOUSING Secretary Robert Jenrick clearly thought he was being helpful when he went on to TV last Sunday to defend the PM and Chancellor’s priviliged self-isolation arrangements in comparison to the sacrifices being expected of families across Britain ‘pinged’ by the Test and Trace app.

His performance was so disastrous that it prompted Rishi Sunak to backtrack – and post this on Twitter – moments before the fastest Downing Street U-turn yet. And that’s part of the problem – the Cabinet is full of lickspittles like Jenrick who will always defend the indefensible, in the hope it leads to a promotion, rather than call out double standards.

FINALLY I’m reminded of Winston Churchill’s response 70 years ago when asked how long the Second World War was likely, in his view at that moment in time, to continue.

“If we manage it well, it will only take half as long as if we manage it badly.” They’re words of wisdom that Boris Johnson – the wartime leader’s biographer no less – should heed.