Williamson: Tarantula-loving political plotter never far from controversy

Sir Gavin Williamson, whose political career has not been short of controversy, has once again left cabinet – this time over allegations of bullying and “immoral” behaviour.

Further pressure was piled on the Rishi Sunak ally on Tuesday after a report in The Guardian alleged Sir Gavin had told a senior civil servant to “slit your throat” and on another occasion to “jump out of the window”.

His recent return to Government as a Cabinet Office minister raised eyebrows in Westminster, where he is viewed with suspicion by many Tory MPs thanks to his long-standing reputation as an inveterate plotter and a master of parliamentary “dark arts”.

The former fireplace manufacturing firm managing director’s last stint in Government ended badly, when he faced repeated criticism over his handling of disruption to schools during the pandemic and the fiasco around grading of GCSE and A-level students amid cancelled exams.

Sir Gavin Williamson
Sir Gavin Williamson is facing fresh allegations about his conduct (PA)

Born and raised in Scarborough, Sir Gavin went to a local comprehensive school and sixth-form college before studying at the University of Bradford.

His state school background was not enough to win over many teachers, students and parents during the Covid-19 pandemic, which dominated his time in office and led to a series of U-turns.

In summer 2020, he faced calls to resign over the A-level and GCSE results row after the Government was forced into a U-turn following protests over the downgrading of thousands of results.

Sir Gavin also received criticism over the recovery plan to help pupils catch up and confusion around children returning to class amid Covid-19.

Sir Gavin also faced calls to step down amid criticism of inadequate free school meal provision for pupils, and again after the schools catch-up tsar resigned over the Government’s £1.4 billion education recovery fund.

Before his time at the Department for Education, he became known for a tendency to put his foot in his mouth as defence secretary.

At the height of the furore over the Salisbury Novichok attack in March 2018, Sir Gavin urged Russia to “go away and shut up”.

Coronavirus – Wed Feb 24, 2021
Sir Gavin Williamson was education secretary during the pandemic (John Sibley/PA)

He was sacked as defence secretary in May 2019 following an inquiry into the leak of information from a National Security Council meeting about Chinese telecoms firm Huawei’s involvement in the development of the UK’s 5G mobile network. Sir Gavin denied being the source of the leak.

Before this, Sir Gavin had been a vital part of Theresa May’s inner circle after being appointed her chief whip when she took office in July 2016.

As a whip, he was best known in Westminster for keeping a pet tarantula named Cronus in a glass box on his desk, which is said to have provided added menace when dealing with errant MPs.

Those whipping skills were put to good use in recent months, as Sir Gavin – knighted at Boris Johnson’s request earlier this year – took on a key role in Mr Sunak’s summer campaign to become Tory leader as he sought to win over his parliamentary colleagues.

His fortunes rose alongside those of Mr Sunak, as the collapse of Liz Truss’s chaotic administration brought old faces back into Government.

But in the face of mounting allegations against him, they proved to be short-lived.