Dowden said Gavin Williamson sent the messages to the former chief whip "in the heat of the moment". (Photo: Sky News)
Rishi Sunak was aware of a bullying complaint against Sir Gavin Williamson when he brought him back into government, a cabinet minister has admitted.
Cabinet Office minister Sir Gavin Williamson is facing an investigation over a series of abusive and threatening messages he sent to former chief whip Wendy Morton after he was not invited to the Queen’s funeral.
Williamson, who supported Sunak’s Tory leadership campaign, accused Morton of using the death of the monarch to “punish” senior MPs who did not support Liz Truss.
The exchange of messages, obtained by The Sunday Times, concluded with him saying: “Well let’s see how many more times you f*** us all over. There is a price for everything.”
Asked about the threatening nature of the messages, Dowden, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, told Sky News that Williamson sent them in the “heat of the moment” and “regrets” the exchange.
“These were sent in the heat of a moment, expressing frustration,” he told presenter Sophy Ridge.
“It was a difficult time for the party. I think he now accepts that he shouldn’t have done it and he regrets doing so, and I think that that’s right. And thankfully, we’re in a bit of a better place now as a party.”
Pressing Dowden further, Ridge said: “It sounds a bit threatening though, doesn’t it? ‘There’s a price for everything’ — what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well remember this was Gavin Williamson when he was a backbencher expressing his frustrations at a difficult time for the party with the then chief whip.
“He regrets the language that he uses — and I don’t think he should have used that sort of language — but nonetheless that that is in the past now and thankfully, we’re in a better place as a party.”
Asked whether Sunak had confidence in Williamson, Dowden replied: “Well, he shouldn’t have sent those messages and he says that he regrets it but of course the prime minister continues to have confidence in Gavin Williamson as minister.”
In the messages, Williamson complained it was “very poor” that privy councillors – senior politicians who formally advise the monarch – who had not been “favoured” by Truss had been excluded from the funeral at Westminster Abbey.
Morton insisted that his claims were unfounded and that the government had been allocated an “extremely limited” number of tickets, most of which went to members of the Cabinet.
Williamson hit back: “Well certainly looks it which think is very shit and perception becomes reality. Also don’t forget I know how this works so don’t puss (sic) me about.
“It’s very clear how you are going to treat a number of us which is very stupid and you are showing f*** all interest in pulling things together.
“Also this shows exactly how you have rigged it is is (sic) disgusting you are using her death to punish people who are just supportive, absolutely disgusting.”
“Well let’s see how many more times you f*** us all over. There is a price for everything.”
The Sunday Times reported that the party chairman at the time, Sir Jake Berry, informed Sunak the day before he entered No.10 that Morton had submitted a formal complaint to the party about Williamson’s conduct.
Asked whether the reports were true, Dowden admitted the prime minister was aware of the allegation but said he had not seen the specific messages.
“I don’t think it was any secret that Gavin Williamson and other backbenchers had a difficult relationship with the chief whip,” he said.
“But it is not the case that the prime minister saw this exchange of text messages until they were leaked to the newspapers last night.”
Pressed on whether he was aware of the allegation, Dowden replied: “He knew that there was a difficult relationship but clearly there is a complaints process which is ongoing at the Conservative Party, which I’m not part of.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.