If Gavin Williamson is staging Tory melodrama to make us think he's leadership material, it isn't working

Matthew Norman
It was reported this weekend that Williamson and Hammond had a bust-up which required Theresa May to step in: PA

Have you ever set eyes on a British politician in such a tearing hurry as Gavin Williamson?

In a few years, the Defence Secretary who kept Cronus the tarantula in his office grew from parliamentary new bug into a gigantic, powerful spider. In fewer weeks, he has swapped the shadowy world of Chief Whip for a halogen-lit campaign to succeed Theresa May.

Judging by the haste, he doesn’t anticipate a long wait. Last week, the 41-year-old from Scarborough put the most publicity-hungry Big Brother contestant to shame with a trio of cheap headline-grabbing manoeuvres.

After sparing a couple of army dogs from lethal injection, he showed less clemency to human combatants, with the most excruciating faux macho remarks a defence secretary has uttered since Michael Portillo’s SAS conference speech. He demanded that British citizens suspected of joining terrorist outfits abroad be hunted down and killed before they can return.

And then, the Mail on Sunday reports, he picked a fight with Philip Hammond. Their Commons screaming match, nominally about defence cuts, might have turned into a hissy-fit brawl along the lines of Colin Firth vs Hugh Grant in Bridget Jones’ Diary, had the Prime Minister not stepped in and sent them to neutral corners.

What provoked Williamson was a briefing about their funding differences in which an ally of the Chancellor called him “Private Pike”. You see why that would sting after all the efforts to neutralise his “Eddie Redmayne’s dullard cousin” baby face by pairing the arachnid tastes of Dr No with the pastoral-care approach of Francis Urquhart.

As chief whip, his disciplinary style was carrot and stick, he said in a brave stab at a Wildean thrust, adding that “it is surprising what you can achieve with a sharpened carrot”.

All that desperate posturing with the army dogs and the clarion call for the state-sponsored murder of British nationals who might feel aggrieved to find the presumption of innocence unilaterally cancelled, and then someone compares you to the wettest, most snivelly mummy’s boy adolescent in global sitcom history. No wonder this incredibly hard man had a toddler tantrum about that.

Perhaps it was also more calculating. No hyper-ambitious schemer trying to establish himself as a leader-in-waiting underestimates the value of sucking up to the right-wing press.

This may be coincidence, but just about all the right-wing rags, tabloid or otherwise, share these four traits. They are a) highly sentimental about animals; b) not hung up on the dictates of natural justice; c) jingoistically attached to spending vast amounts on defence; and d) convinced that Philip Hammond is the enemy of the people, who wants to soften Brexit and stop us getting our country back.

In that light, Williamson’s trifecta of ingratiations makes sense.

Yet the form book teaches that the way to win the Conservative leadership stakes is from off the pace. Since the early 1960s, no contest has been won by a frontrunner.

A political columnist draws the comparison between Williamson and John Major, shock winner over Michael Heseltine when the last woman PM was ousted.

Williamson, whose first big job was as David Cameron’s parliamentary private secretary, is known to hate Boris Johnson for producing the referendum result that destroyed his boss.

But even if Heseltine and Johnson share flamboyance, populist appeal and unruly blonde locks, the analogy doesn’t work. John Major won in 1990 because, like every serial killer whose neighbour ever spoke to local TV news, he kept himself to himself.

He rose with vertiginous speed, but so quietly that no one noticed. In Dad’s Army terms, he was one of the unspeaking extras. He soaked up all the stresses and disappointments without complaint. He was Private Sponge.

He went from a 100-1 outsider to Prime Minister in weeks because he had no enemies.

Williamson, for all his youth and inexperience, has plenty. One colleague describes him as a “slimeball who knifed [Michael] Fallon to get the job himself”, when his MoD predecessor was exposed for wandering hands and loose lips. A Tory website reported a female Tory MP dipping into the effete Edwardian argot of Stanley Baldwin to describe him as “a self-serving c***”.

Another criticised him for “overplaying his hand” long before last week’s infantile contretemps with Hammond.

Even if he did stage that melodrama to catch the eye of editors, this self-styled strong man overplayed it again to look brittle, weak and panicky. Be it a bayonet, a sharpened carrot or even a disobliging nickname, they don’t like it up ’em – not when they’re callow, over-promoted and in an indecent rush to position themselves for a leadership battle ahead.

In another blow, a civil servant’s arachnophobia has forced him to exile the tarantula he named Cronus, after the Titan who came to power by castrating his father, Uranus, and eating his children to avoid being usurped in his turn.

However much one admires these mock self-deprecating efforts to establish the persona of a ruthless seeker of power, Cronus is not the Greek mythological character Williamson brings to mind. It’s Icarus. If Mrs Pike was Gavin Williamson’s mum, she would have good reason to be nagging him about wearing asbestos scarves over his wings.