If ever there was evidence needed that the Conservative party in the United Kingdom is no longer capable of acting in a single, cohesive manner then the current ill-manner tempest over Sir Gavin Williamson and his resignation from Cabinet provides ample evidence indeed.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak included the former chief whip into his inner circle in the first instance speaks either to the new Conservative Leader’s naivete or his lack of leadership skills. Or both, as is indeed more likely the case. Twice before has the former Chief Whip sat at the Cabinet table.
And twice before his presence there has ended in sackings. The first enforced walking of the plank was ordered in 2018 by then Prime Minister Theresa May when Williamson, her Minister for Defence, was identified as the source of a security leak from his department. Loose lips sink ships and all of that.
For all of May’s fault’s — gosh, they seem so normal now given all that we’ve been through in the Johnson and Truss administrations — she had the good judgement to jettison him when the opportunity arose.
I wonder how many MPs miss those years of May.
Williamson, the smarmy South Yorkshire MP, endured months of political purgatory on the backbenches, sucking up to his colleagues to learn their motives.
After all, in the polished limestone corridors and oak-panelled meeting rooms that make up much of the Palace of Westminster, knowledge is power. And power is that keeps the lights on in that neo-Gothic carbuncle on the River Thames.
Johnson called Sir Gavin back to the Cabinet table to be his Education Secretary. Sure enough, and true to form, the new minister was as administratively inept as all in Westminster suspected.
During those long months of lockdown, when other ministers were tipping back drinks, Sir Gavin was wrecking the marking process for a million or so students sitting their O- and A-Level examinations.
The role of the Chief Whip in Westminster is indeed as it sounds — keeping MPs in line, making sure that they vote as they should, and maintaining discipline within the ranks to ensure that the government’s support is indeed as it should.
In a party that is riven and divisive as no version before, this Conservative party has no parallel.
There are right-wing neo libertarians who believe that trickle-down economics is the way to go — the space occupied by former PM Liz Truss, her former Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng and her former Home Secretary, Suella Braverman.
Newfound freedom of unfettered Britain
Except, of course, that Braverman was only out of office for six days for resigning over a security leak before she was elevated back to her former office when Sunak came to power. That in itself highlights the premise of this column, dear reader, that the Tories are merely a collection of caucuses.
Then there are the hard-line Brexiteers who, with the formal break from the European Union now complete, want to rip up all vestiges of EU legislation lingering in the newfound freedom of unfettered Britain.
Then there are those who believe that they are only in power because of Boris Johnson, and long for his return, And those who want to build a better Britain under an all-embracing small government Conservative philosophy. Or those who want less government and more freedoms …
Basically, it’s confusing. And such is the world Sunak inherits and leads.
So, when Williamson was Chief Whip, he knew who was doing what to whom, who owed what to whom, and was far from unsubtle in using that knowledge to coerce, cajole — in the political sense of course — and force MPs to fall in line.
It’s that knowledge that made him powerful — certainly not his sterling ministerial track records.
Sunak, in trying to build a government from the ruins of Boris and partygate, from the shamble of Truss and her disastrous administration of just 44 days, brought Sir Gavin back to the Cabinet as a minister without portfolio. Why? That knowledge and power Sir Gavin had.
It was supposedly vital in keeping the party together and creating something that might restore some hope of now being blown away when the next general election rolls around in two years’ time.
Sorry? Sunak is trying to just steady the Conservative ship so that it doesn’t fully sink. It’s his job to save as many on-board as he came before it is indeed scuttled at the next general election ...
But even Sunak, as naive as he appears and as focused on the set of national accounts and nothing else as he is, recognised that bringing Sir Gavin back was an error, a detraction, a reminder of all that is indeed so divisive and so corrosive in the Tory ranks.
When a minister tells a civil servant issues foul-language and threatening emails over the seating arrangements for Queen Elizabeth’s funeral service — it says everything you need to know about Sir Gavin.
The problem is that Sunak likely knew this all along. But such is the divisive and corrosive state of the party he leads, Sir Gavin had to be brought into his unity Cabinet. Is there any hope?