Theresa May’s attempts to restore stability to her Government amid the fallout from the Westminster sexual harassment scandal have faced fierce criticism after she appointed her Chief Whip to the role of Defence Secretary.
The decision to promote Gavin Williamson met with a mixed response from Tory MPs, with one senior figure suggesting colleagues were in “despair” at what is being seen as a sign of the Prime Minister’s “weakness”.
The move was prompted by the surprise resignation of Sir Michael Fallon following revelations that he once behaved inappropriately towards a female journalist at a dinner event more than a decade ago.
Two other Ministers are involved in investigations into alleged misconduct, including Mrs May’s close ally, Secretary of State Damian Green.
Downing Street announced the result of the mini-reshuffle less than 24 hours after Sir Michael stood down from his Cabinet post.
Some MPs were quick to criticise Mr Williamson’s rapid rise through the ranks, with one former Minister suggesting the Staffordshire MP had played a role in Sir Michael’s demise and that colleagues were in “head-in-hands despair” about the move.
However, others welcomed the appointment with the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling insisting Williamson would do “a very good job”, and the former Skills Minister Nick Boles taking to Twitter to praise the former whip’s loyalty.
Responding to news of his appointment, Mr Williamson described his new job as an “immense privilege”.
Speaking briefly outside the Ministry of Defence, he said his priority was “making sure our national security is at the forefront of everything we do”.
He finished by saying: “I’m off to sell some poppies.”
He did not mention allegations of sleaze against Sir Michael Fallon.
Several of Mr Williamson’s fellow Tory MPs also welcomed the decision yesterday, with former Minister James Duddridge stating he will “do a good job” and Nadhim Zahawi describing him as an “inspired choice”.
However, the senior backbencher Sarah Wollaston was quick to signal her disapproval of the appointment. Taking to Twitter, she stated that “there are times when offered a job that it would be better to advise that another would be more experienced and suited to the role”.
In a separate interview with the BBC, the health select committee chairman indicated she would have preferred to see a female politician given the position.
Other MPs were quoted as saying the appointment would prove to be the Prime Minister’s “biggest mistake”.
One senior party member reportedly told Sky News that the post of Defence Secretary was “way above [Williamson’s] ability”.
A number of colleagues hit back at claims about Mr Williamson’s inexperience, including the former soldier Johnny Mercer, who argued his lack of a military background could allow him to provide “strategic oversight”.
The ex-army officer Bob Stewart acknowledged that the former whip “won’t know much about defence” but suggested “he is the sort of person that will listen carefully [and] take advice”.
And the Education Minister and former whip Robert Goodwill told The Yorkshire Post that he was a “fan” of Mr Williamson, dismissing criticisms of him as unfair.
“He was the best PPS that I’ve ever known a Prime Minister have... and since he’s been the chief whip he has commanded great respect all around the House and made some inspired decisions,” he said.
MORE ALLEGATIONS SURFACE AS WESTMINSTER ABUSE AND SEXUAL HARASSMENT CRISIS DEEPENS
Yesterday also saw further speculation about the culture of sexual harassment and abuse in Westminster following a series of allegations in the media this week.
And last night, Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins was suspended from the party pending an investigation “on the basis of allegations received”, a party spokesman said.
Pressed for further details of Sir Michael’s resignation, the Prime Minister’s spokesman declined to say whether any further allegations about the MP had been raised with Mrs May, saying only that the former Defence Secretary had set out the reasons for his decision in his letter.
Asked if Sir Michael had set a new bar for behaviour requiring Ministerial resignation, the spokesman said Mrs May took any allegations of misconduct seriously but stressed that each case would be looked at individually.
He added: “The Prime Minister was absolutely clear in the House of Commons yesterday that Westminster needs to be a place where everybody who works there feels they can do so safely and free from harassment and if they make complaints they will be taken seriously.”
Earlier in the day, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives Ruth Davidson suggested the “dam has broken” on the issue of harassment in Westminster. She went on to call for an end to the “boys’ own locker-room culture” that has prevailed in “male-dominated professions”, telling the BBC: “There has been this sense that people can use positions of power to demand things from others, and that has got to stop.”
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post about the reports of abuse, the Education Minister Robert Goodwill challenged claims that party whips have been keeping “black books” detailing incidents of MPs’ misconduct.
“I was in the whips’ office for three years in Government and six months in opposition and I never saw those lists,” the Scarborough MP said last night.
“If I had been made aware of any criminal activity, I would certainly have seen it as my responsibility to report it to the Chief Whip, who would then have taken it up with the police. The only two weapons we had when I was in the whips’ office were ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.”
WILLIAMSON’S PROMOTION MEANS NEW ROLE FOR SKIPTON MP
Scarborough-born Mr Williamson has been replaced in his former role by another senior Yorkshire politician, the Skipton and Ripon MP Julian Smith.
Mr Smith, who also entered Parliament in 2010, served as an assistant government whip between 2015-16 before being promoted to Deputy Chief Whip in the wake of June’s snap election.
Commenting on his promotion, Mr Smith told The Yorkshire Post he was “delighted [and] honoured”.
“I look forward to serving in the Prime Minister’s Cabinet and continuing my work in support of this Government.”
Meanwhile, the former Employment Minister and recently re-elected MP Esther McVey was announced at his new deputy. Ms McVey lost her Wirral West seat in 2015, but replaced the former Chancellor George Osborne as MP for Tatton in June.