Enoch Powell reportedly once said that “the House of Commons without whips is like a city without sewers.” In other words, the place simply can’t run as normal without them and the unpleasant function they perform; they are a necessary evil.
Perhaps evil is a little harsh. But following recent revelations about Gavin Williamson – who was chief whip during the first Theresa May government from 2016 to 2017 – there will be those around Rishi Sunak wondering whether it is necessary for the current Minister of State without Portfolio to remain in the Cabinet.
The Times reports that a minister has said that when she was a backbench MP in 2016, speaking out on an issue that was uncomfortable for the government, Williamson raised details regarding her private life with her, in what she saw as a tacit threat.
It comes days after the release of private messages from September that appear to show Williamson, who was a backbencher at the time, accosting the then chief whip, Wendy Morton.
In the messages, Williamson, who clearly felt he had been deliberately excluded from the Queen’s funeral because he was not in favour with PM Liz Truss, said to Morton, “you are showing f*** all interest in pulling things together” and that he thought it was “disgusting you are using her death to punish people who are just supportive, absolutely disgusting.”
He finished, rather ominously, with, “Well let’s see how many more times you f*** us all over. There is a price for everything.”
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These stories will concern Sunak. Grant Shapps, the Secretary of State for Business, has publicly condemned the messages. In recent years there have been a number of complaints of bullying made against MPs, and Sunak, who is keen to project a sense of competency and manners following the erratic Johnson and Truss eras, will be conscious that this isn’t a good look. He has called Williamson’s messages “unacceptable”.
No doubt Williamson will defend himself. It is probably unlikely that he felt he was doing anything wrong, for there is a long history of the whips behaving assertively – shall we say – in their attempts to encourage wavering MPs to vote with the government. (The infamous Jack Straw-Walter Harrison encounter is a truly eye-watering example of this sort of thing.)
But times change, and behaviour that was once acceptable, or deliberately ignored, is no longer. Williamson is not the first to employ these methods but that won’t work as a defence. For now, he remains in the Cabinet. He supported Sunak in both this year’s leadership elections. But if the drip, drip of these stories about him becomes a steady stream, the PM might be forced into a difficult decision.
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