Britain’s new prime minister is under pressure to discipline one of his closest political allies after just two weeks in office as the Labour party called for an independent investigation into allegations of bullying by Sir Gavin Williamson.
Williamson, who was appointed minister without portfolio by Rishi Sunak, and was a key figure in his leadership campaign, sent expletive-laden texts to the former chief whip, Wendy Morton, complaining that he and other Sunak-supporting MPs were excluded from the Queen’s funeral.
At the time Liz Truss was prime minister and Williamson a backbench MP.
“It’s very clear how you are going to treat a number of us which is very stupid and you are showing *** all interest in pulling things together,” one message said. “Don’t bother asking anything from me.” Another text said: “Let’s see how many more times you *** us all over.”
The row has raised questions about the prime minister’s judgment just days after he promised to govern with “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”. Williamson was sacked as defence secretary in 2019 over an alleged leak from a National Security Council meeting. He was also criticised for his handling of exams during the pandemic when he was education secretary.
The controversy around the emails follows criticism of Sunak’s reappointment of Suella Braverman as home secretary. She was fired by Truss for using her personal email account to handle government business. Since she returned to office she has been under fire for mishandling overcrowding at an asylum processing centre at Manston in Kent.
Morton made a complaint about the messages to the Conservative party on October 24 — just one day before Sunak became prime minister — accusing Williamson of “bullying and intimidation”.
Sir Jake Berry, who was party chair under Sunak’s predecessor, Liz Truss, informed the new prime minister about the allegations the same day, the Sunday Times revealed.
Sunak appointed Williamson minister without portfolio just hours later.
Ed Miliband, shadow climate secretary, called on Sunak to launch an independent investigation into the bullying claims and said the revelations called into question the prime minister’s judgment.
“What it says is that Rishi Sunak was making decisions simply in his own narrow short-term interests as far as the Conservative party leadership was concerned and not the national interest,” he told Sky News.
“There needs to be an urgent independent investigation into exactly what happened. We can’t have a cover-up, we can’t have a whitewash here — what did Rishi Sunak know, when did he know it, what did Gavin Williamson do and what are the implications of that?”
Williamson said in a statement on Saturday that he regretted getting “frustrated” and would be happy to speak to Morton and work positively with her in future.
Oliver Dowden, Cabinet Office minister, defended him on Sunday, telling Sky News that Williamson accepted he should not have sent the messages and regretted doing so. “These were sent in the heat of the moment, expressing frustration. It was a difficult time for the party,” he said.
“I don’t think it was any secret that Gavin Williamson and other backbenchers had a difficult relationship with the chief whip,” he added
Dowden said that there was a complaints process about the matter under way within the Conservative party. “Of course the prime minister continues to have confidence in Gavin Williamson,” he added.