Political stars seem to rise and fall in such a quick blink of an eye these days that I can type-in a politician’s name on the Winegum archive and all past posts in which they figure will appear before me, effectively chronicling their entire duration in the public eye. In just under a month’s time, the Winegum Telegram will have been with us for seven years – a timescale which doesn’t feel long in the great scheme of things, yet the amount of faces that have come and gone in that relatively brief period is innumerable to the point where seven years bears more of a resemblance to seventy. For example, by skimming through past posts I can trace the key developments in the career of Gavin Williamson, reported upon as and when they happened. And it’s perhaps fitting than the man who once courted a Mandelson-like Dark Lord persona via his pet tarantula now stands to rival the architect of New Labour with the amount of times he has been hired and fired by the Prime Minister of the day – and there’ve been quite a few Prime Ministers in the lifespan of the Winegum Telegram.
The first entry on Williamson I came across was dated 2 November 2017 – five years ago; titled ‘The First Line of Defence’, it dealt with the end of Michael Fallon as Defence Secretary, following revelations of Fallon’s hand coming into contact with journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer’s knee a decade before; in the wake of hardcore porn being discovered on the office computer of Cabinet member Damian Green, a list of illicit dalliances between MPs and their acquaintances had briefly circulated online and Westminster was awash with talk of ‘sex scandal’. The fact this event is barely remembered now, whereas the far more distant Profumo Affair remains the touchstone for all sex scandals involving Honourable Members, again demonstrates the here today/gone tomorrow nature of the social media age, where one day’s shock-horror headline is all-but forgotten the next. Anyway, this was the climate that enabled then-Chief Whip Gavin Williamson to step into a top job. Having revelled in his role as a faux-Kingmaker during the dodgy deal that secured DUP support for Theresa May’s tiny majority following the disastrous 2017 General Election, Williamson was rewarded with the post of Defence Secretary. Some were even touting him as a future PM.
May also felt indebted to Williamson for organising her leadership campaign in 2016, so he was bound to ascend the greasy pole thereafter; however, within barely a year-and-a-half, Williamson was sacked as Defence Secretary by the woman he’d apparently boasted he’d ‘made’ and could therefore ‘break’. His crime was to allegedly leak news to the press that secret discussions had been taking place between May’s inner circle and the Chinese Government’s telecommunications wing Huawei, with a view to the latter winning the contract to run Britain’s 5G network. If Williamson was responsible for passing this worrying revelation to Fleet Street, good on him; I gave him the benefit of the doubt at the time in a post titled ‘Gavin in Stasis’ (Dated 2 May 2019). But this was a period in which leaks from May’s Cabinet were happening on a virtual daily basis, something that in retrospect can be seen as a sign that her runaway train of an administration was destined to shortly hit the buffers.
Once May was out, Williamson was back in again. A little over two months after May had fired him from the Cabinet, Boris brought him back – this time as Education Secretary, a post he didn’t exactly sparkle in; to be fair, though, as with all of Boris’s appointments, Williamson hardly had the chance to make his mark in the post before the coronavirus brought everything to a grinding halt. The pandemic certainly sorted the men from the boys, and most of the men were found wanting; Williamson presided over the mass exclusion of schoolchildren from their seats of learning, the cancellation of exams, and then the whole cock-up of the ‘algorithm A-levels’, a farce which contributed to his eventual dismissal as Education Secretary in September 2021. Part of his golden handshake from Boris was the awarding of a knighthood; well, he was probably too young (and not quite corrupt enough) for a peerage, so being a ‘Sir’ – even on the backbenches – was a nice going away present. Williamson only really re-emerged last summer when he whipped up support for Rishi Sunak’s first leadership campaign, a tactic he was poised to repeat before Sunak swiftly replaced Liz Truss at No.10 effectively unopposed. Just as Theresa May had rewarded Williamson with a Cabinet post in 2017, Rishi did likewise last month by promoting him to Minister of State without Portfolio. Now, merely a few weeks later, Williamson is back to being MP without Portfolio, following his resignation as he seeks to clear his name over allegations of bullying.
As with similar allegations levelled against Priti Patel when she was Home Secretary, Williamson has been accused by an ex-civil servant of behaviour in the workplace that we’re currently only seeing from one perspective. Nobody likes a bully, and a bully being brought down is something to be celebrated; but there’s always the possibility the underling in question may have been deserving of a bollocking from a Minister exercising his authority, and we’re unaware of the context that provoked outbursts from Williamson advising the civil servant to ‘slit their throat’ and ‘jump out of the window’. It would appear the anonymous civil servant has played the mental health card to strengthen his complaint to Parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, so we don’t know if his is a genuine case of Gavin Williamson overstepping the mark and inflicting unwarranted suffering on an innocent party, or if it’s a Government employee incapable of taking a necessary dressing-down.
From the perspective of Gavin Williamson, the timing of this particular complaint is unfortunate in that it comes hot on the heels of another complaint in a similar vein, this time from the former Conservative Chief Whip Wendy Morton; she’s also gone to the ICGS, claiming Williamson sent her abusive texts, the alleged content of which blamed her for his exclusion from the guest-list at the Queen’s funeral. If both allegations are rooted in fact, the unflattering portrait they paint of him as an arrogant and unpleasant individual suggest he’s worthy of everything the ICGS can throw at him; but we don’t yet know. Either way, his continued presence in Cabinet was what news outlets usually refer to as ‘untenable’, and Williamson has now left Government for a third time, adding to the questioning of Rishi Sunak’s judgement in light of the ongoing Suella Braverman controversy. I suspect we haven’t heard the last of this.
LESLIE PHILLIPS (1924-2022)
Not every actor has a catchphrase, but Leslie Phillips – whose death at the grand old age of 98 was announced yesterday – had two, both of which were repeatedly evoked in his obituaries across the media. As the last survivor of an era of British comic cinema that lives on in the collective consciousness of Brits over a certain age, Phillips was regarded with the same kind of affection that greeted the death of Bernard Cribbins a few months ago. We don’t make ‘em like them anymore, and Leslie Phillips specialised in playing a now-redundant archetype recalled with undeniable fondness, the cad. His portrayal of this shameless, upper-middle-class philanderer with an irresistible twinkle in his eye was something he cornered the market in for decades, even taking it to TV screens in the early 70s with one of those sitcoms no broadcaster would countenance today, ‘Casanova ‘73’. Not unlike David Niven, Leslie Phillips represented a vanished world of well-spoken, well-turned-out English gentlemen whose effortless charm and sophistication could make those around them feel sartorially and socially inept, yet inspired not resentment but admiration. Impossible to dislike and incapable of not provoking a smile, Leslie Phillips will be much-missed, though while ever his celluloid legacy remains, there’ll always be an England.
© The Editor