UK minister Gavin Williamson resigns over bullying claims

By Muvija M and Kate Holton

LONDON (Reuters) -British minister Gavin Williamson resigned on Tuesday from the government over claims that he bullied colleagues, raising questions about Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's judgement just weeks into the job.

Sunak became Britain's third prime minister in two months in October, pledging to restore integrity and professionalism to the heart of government following months of turmoil under his predecessors, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson.

But his first two weeks in the job have been overshadowed by rows about first his interior minister, Suella Braverman, and now Williamson, who has been forced out of government for the third time in less than four years.

The Sunday Times and other newspapers had reported that colleagues had accused Williamson of acting in a bullying manner, sending expletive-laden messages and telling one government official to "slit your throat".

Williamson said in a letter to Sunak on Tuesday that he was complying with a complaints process and that while he refuted the characterisation of the messages he recognised that they were becoming a distraction for the government.

"I have therefore decided to step back from government so that I can comply fully with the complaints process that is underway and clear my name of any wrongdoing," he said in the letter, which he published on Twitter.

"It is with real sadness that I tender my resignation."

Sunak said in a letter in response that he accepted the resignation with "great sadness" but supported the decision.

In a bid to appease the warring factions of his party and to build a government that could last, Sunak had appointed ministers from all wings of the Conservative Party when he became prime minister in late October.

But the appointment of Williamson had raised eyebrows. Williamson was fired as defence secretary in 2019 over a national security leak, and again last year when parents criticised his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and schools during his time as education secretary.

Sunak has also come under fire for returning Braverman to the interior ministry, or Home Office, less than a week after she was fired by his predecessor for breaching email security rules.

The opposition Labour Party said Williamson's resignation was a "damning reflection of a weak prime minister".

"This is yet another example of Rishi Sunak's poor judgement and weak leadership," Angela Rayner, Labour's deputy leader, said in a statement.

The government and fellow ministers had previously said that Williamson's messages, if true, were not acceptable but that more time was needed to investigate the situation.

(Reporting by Muvija M and Kate Holton, Editing by Kylie MacLellan and Rosalba O'Brien)