Marf cartoon first appeared after Williamson was sacked
A guest slot by The Kitchen Cabinet
There are some events that seem unimportant and innocuous at the time but which have far reaching consequences on the longer-term. Historically, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 is the biggest example, an event which, at first, attracted little attention but which set off World War I. Another, far less known, is the financial scandals of President Hindenburg’s son, Oskar, which many believe was a major factor in changing Hindenburg’s mind about appointing Hitler as Chancellor of Germany in 1933. We may have our own version right now, not as dramatic (hopefully) in its consequences, but an event that arguably may have changed fundamentally the dynamics of UK politics for good. That event was Theresa May’s sacking of the ex-fireplace salesman extraordinaire and Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson.
Many have ascribed Boris Johnson’s approaching coronation to the skills of Lyndon Crosby. But I would argue that it is Gavin Williamson who has done far more to being about the approach of PM Johnson as his effective campaign manager.
Williamson’s supposed gaffes as Defence Secretary are well known. However, that overlooks his time as Chief Whip, where he was incredibly effective, brokering the DUP-CON pact and ensuring that the Government kept on track. One wonders whether we would have had all the drama with the Withdrawal Agreement if Williamson had remained Chief Whip.
In the campaign for Johnson’s leadership, I would argue that it is Williamson who has won it for BJ and he has again come into his own. It is easy in hindsight to think that Johnson’s route to power was inevitable. But that is not the case. We all know from the comments on this site that Johnson was seen by most (but not all) as embodying the typical perennial pattern of favourites for the next Conservative leader falling at the fence. Few judged he could make the leap. His character was untrustworthy and he would not have the discipline for a campaign. Many of his colleagues disliked him intensely.
Moreover, Johnson’s position as the chief cheerleader for Brexit wasn’t secure. It is easy to mock their campaigns now but both Dominic Raab and Esther McVey could have provided serious competition for that block. Both had been building up their leadership campaigns for months post-their resignations and burnishing their credentials, Raab by constant public appearances, McVey by embedding herself more at the grassroots level. Both had policies that went beyond Brexit to a more overriding vision that would appeal to members – Raab with low taxation, McVey with blue-collar conservatism. Both thought they had the numbers to progress further (Raab has but McVey thought she had at least 20, including Liam Fox who signed the papers for Boris Johnson). Both had good reason to think in a campaign where many candidates would come from the pro-Remain wing that the ERG would decide that they needed to swing behind a pro-Brexit candidate to get the latter into the second round where they would probably win the membership contest and that Johnson wouldn’t be trusted.
Yet that hasn’t happened. Williamson would have realised that getting the support of the main ERG MPs was vital. As long as Johnson could get to the second round and his opponents were the likes of Gove and Hunt, he was most likely in with the membership.
I would argue that what he did phenomenally well was gain the support of this block. Having Rees Mogg, Francois and Baker quickly come out for Johnson effectively demolished any hopes of Johnson being out-Brexited. Meanwhile, his marshalling of MPs for Boris, pointing out that it is better to be on the side of the winner if you wanted a job, has been phenomenal. MPs who publicly stated their disbelief of a PM BoJo have fallen into line. As a result, we now have the situation where, unless BoJo blows up, he will be our next PM.
There are two further points from this. The first is Williamson’s role in a Johnson Government. I think he will be the classic power behind the throne type, effectively directing the new Government. I suspect his job will be more DPM / First Secretary of State than in charge of a department, where his skills would be diminished. He may even head to Brussels to head the negotiations with the EU. What it is likely to mean also is that a Johnson Government will be a lot more disciplined and focused than might be expected. And more successful. Expect an agreement with the EU which is the WA rejigged with some phrases and which can be presented as a triumph (I don’t see Williamson pushing for a No Deal and I think his skills will keep Baker et al on board). Expect more classic Conservative policies of low taxation. And, off the back of this, a GE where I would expect the Conservatives to win against a split opposition and a Brexit Party that would have been defanged.
Secondly, it may have turned out that Theresa May’s most lasting legacy may have been to, inadvertently, smooth the path for Johnson as PM. If Williamson hadn’t been sacked, then he may have been tempted to run for the PM job himself when May had stepped down. Even if he hadn’t, the fact he would have been in the Cabinet, would have made it difficult for him to build the links with the Boris camp. However, outside, he could do what he wanted and it was clear he wanted revenge for his sacking. It would be a fitting summary of Theresa May’s reign that she has smoothed the path as her successor a man she would dearly loved to have kept off the throne.