Voices: Rishi Sunak has built his leadership on ‘integrity’. How’s that going, prime minister?

Rishi Sunak began his time in Downing Street just over a fortnight ago with a homily about “integrity, professionalism and accountability”.

It was his version of the prayer of St Francis of Assisi quoted by Margaret Thatcher as she sought to “bring harmony” in place of discord. So how’s that going, prime minister?

Sir Gavin Williamson, the man who helped put Sunak in No 10, officially resigned this week for becoming a distraction. But the truth is that the allegations of bullying – which Sir Gavin denies – threatened to make a mockery of his boss’s pledge on the steps of Downing Street.

In yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Sunak repeated his commitment to integrity, giving the Labour leader an open goal to ask him when “the scheduled programme of integrity, professionalism and accountability will begin?”

Integrity is not a word many MPs would apply to the former chief whip, before or since the drip drip of allegations we’ve been treated to since the start of the Sunak administration.

On Tuesday night’s Channel 4 News, an hour before Sir Gavin quit, his former deputy in the whips’ office, Anne Milton, laid bare what she herself described as “shocking” evidence of his “unethical and immoral” behaviour. She claimed MPs were “scared” of his “threatening” and “intimidating” behaviour. And she recounted an extraordinary story of being told by Sir Gavin to give a cheque to an MP in financial trouble. She told me: “And he waved it under my nose and said; ‘Make sure when you give him this cheque, he knows I now own him.’”

Sir Gavin denies allegations he’s a bully. But Sunak’s decision to reappoint him to a cabinet seat baffles many of his colleagues. And while he insisted yesterday he “did not know about any of the specific concerns”, he can hardly have been unaware of his character. Sir Gavin revelled in his reputation as a Westminster operator, with his whip displayed ostentatiously on his desk and his tarantula, Cronus, lurking in his office.

There are other ways to inspire loyalty (a quality ironically referenced in Sunak’s letter to Sir Gavin on Tuesday night), as Milton explained to me. When she was a whip she saw pastoral care for her “flock”, as she described the MPs in her charge, as of equal importance to maintaining party discipline. In fact, if you treated them well, and supported them where needed, she explained, they were inspired to vote with the government.

That sounds very much like those elusive qualities of integrity and professionalism Sunak is keen to see at “every level” of his government.

Yet Milton lost the whip after standing up to Boris Johnson over a no-deal Brexit, and then subsequently lost her Guildford seat in the 2019 general election.

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Others of a similar ilk suffered the same fate. And since then – during the Partygate era and successive controversies over Boris Johnson’s casual relationship to the truth – several politicians of integrity have thrown in the towel. I think for example of Sir Charles Walker, who got so fed up with the mire in which politics now finds itself that he’s stepping down at the next election.

Into the void – at least in the second chamber – come Johnson’s chums, as he seeks to use his resignation honours list to reward allies of questionable distinction.

Johnson’s many opponents say that’s to the detriment of the new prime minister, and to democracy too.

So credit where it’s due: Sunak recognises parliament has a problem. But in his mission to restore probity to Westminster, restoring Sir Gavin to the top table was an inauspicious start. Little wonder he regrets it.

Cathy Newman is Presenter and Investigations Editor of Channel 4 News