Voices: Gavin Williamson is the condom in the toilet bowl of British politics

It’s late in the year 2015 and a rookie sketch writer is enduring a rather tedious session of Prime Minister’s Questions between Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron. He’s doing his usual thing of scanning the backbenches for anyone making a very obvious tit of themselves that might make for a sentence or two halfway down. There’s always someone.

Tory backbenchers never disappoint, but nobody has ever not disappointed more than Gavin Williamson.

I recall that my first reaction was almost visceral. Not so much who is that – as what is that? It was sitting on the floor in the aisles, it was boinging up and down, it was pointing, it was braying, it was gurning. It was as if a performing arts school for chimpanzees were putting on a production of Tom Brown’s School Days.

My next shock was to discover that this thing, Gavin Williamson, was not what it had seemed. Little public schoolboys turned Tory MPs bringing their best Oxford Union braying game to the House of Commons is a depressingly familiar sight. That this thing of darkness had arrived via Scarborough, the University of Bradford and a short career selling fireplaces in Stoke was quite the surprise.

But it confirmed what is now very well-known. Sir Gavin is an operator. A machinator. A manoeuvrer. A man for whom politics is a scheme for scheming’s sake and absolutely no more.

But, dare one say it, quite a good one? The world laughed when Gavin Williamson told Russia to “shut up and go away”. Russia did not take his advice, but that was pushing five years ago and somewhat remarkably, Gavin Williamson has not shut up either, and even more remarkably, nor has he gone away.

Naturally, Rishi Sunak’s claim of a new professional, accountable government is near-fatally undermined by the presence of Gavin Williamson within it. See also, of course, Suella Braverman. Braverman is being babysat by Robert Jenrick, who may take over when Sunak feels his debt to the Braverman clan has been settled and the farce need not go on any longer.

But Williamson is, in a way, harder to sack, because it is not by any means clear what he is actually doing. The photograph of Sunak’s first cabinet showed him sitting with Johnny Mercer on a kind of children’s extension table down the end, the pair of them beaming at the camera as if waiting to be brought their nuggets, chips and beans.

What’s also clear is that people are trying to get Sir Gavin sacked from his new non-job of minister without portfolio. Somehow his ridiculous texts to Wendy Morton made their way into the Sunday Times. “Don’t puss me about,” he tells her, while in the middle of clearly displaying his complete lack of class as he gets ever more angry about not having been invited to the Queen’s funeral.

Now we hear that he told a civil servant to “slit your throat”. In the sort of non-denial denial that has become almost standard practice these days, Williamson says he “rejects the allegation” but does not deny saying the words in question, to the person in question. Which is to say Gavin Wiliamson acknowledges it’s true, but would also like to say that it isn’t.

Williamson, self-evidently, was an effective chief whip. He would appear to have one great skill in politics, which is strategically managing the now entirely malign beast that is the Conservative parliamentary party. He knows how it works, he knows how to manipulate it.

He first did so by running Theresa May’s election campaign in 2016. In 2019, he acted as de facto chief whip for Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign, during which he demanded MPs send him photographs of their filled-in secret ballots, from inside the polling booths, so that they could not double, triple or quadruple cross him in their customary way.

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But such skills have routinely elevated him to positions that he cannot accept are far above his capabilities. The job of education secretary when schools are shut and examinations cancelled may well be one of the most challenging government jobs imaginable, but the scale of the challenge could not conceal Williamson’s towering inadequacies.

At time of typing, it seems possible that a bullying scandal, with more allegations likely to come, may finally spell the end of him. But we’ve been here before. He has, after all, already been sacked once for endangering national security* and a second time for overseeing the Covid exam results algorithm fiasco, a shambles so spectacular that it may well end up on the British Political History syllabus in the hope that someone may eventually be able to mark it.

(*It is important to point out that Williamson denies the allegation that he ever leaked information from the national security council to the Daily Telegraph newspaper. It is also important to point out that he was sacked because his denials were not believed.)

But it seems equally impossible that it is not. That Williamson simply cannot be suppressed, that he can never be made to shut up, that he will never go away. The political superbug, the condom in the toilet bowl. That, in the end, it will only be the voters that can ever truly carry him away. And in the meantime, maybe it’s just best to relax and enjoy him. The toweringly incompetent totem pole of the times in which we live.