The ferocity of the Tory reaction to Gavin Williamson’s promotion yesterday was pretty extraordinary yesterday. Within minutes of the announcement, my phone was red hot with the fury. In person, on the phone, via text and WhatsApp, ministers and MPs didn’t hold back. Nearly all of them saw the decision to install the Chief Whip as the new Defence Secretary as further confirmation of Theresa May’s weakened authority and tactical ineptitude.
Allies of both the PM and Williamson claim the move was merely a way of getting trusted colleagues into top jobs to steady the ship as quickly as possible after Fallon’s departure. Some of them say his critics are motivated by both jealousy and snobbery (Williamson is a northerner who went to state school). And yet that doesn’t explain why such a wide variety of ministers –Brexiteers and Remainers, women and men, young and old – were so angry. The complaints were threefold: May had undermined the Whips’ Office when stability was most needed, rewarded a completely inexperienced crony and missed a great chance to promote women. Read my full analysis of the backlash against ‘the not-so-Amazing SpiderMan’ HERE. “He’s a self-serving c*nt,” said one MP. And that was a woman.
It may be that Williamson overspun his own role in Fallon’s downfall on Wednesday night, itself more evidence of inexperience. In fact, Andrea Leadsom appears to have had a much more important role in his resignation (see below) than the Chief Whip. No.10 insiders insist he did not advise the PM on the reshuffle, and didn’t effectively appoint himself. That’s how tangled this web is.
What mattered more was the anger with May. I haven’t experienced this level of vitriol about a Tory leader since MPs openly briefed against Iain Duncan Smith during that fateful party conference in the Winter Gardens in Blackpool in 2003. IDS was gone within months. Even the abuse David Cameron got was nothing compared to the sheer despair expressed yesterday. One telling quote came from a senior minister, who is normally loyal to the PM but now fears she lacks the leadership to steer the country through Brexit: “It’s real ‘end of days’ stuff. He’s a real slimeball, with his own leadership team already in place. I’ve tried my best to serve in this Government to keep things on the road, but now I wonder why.”
The very idea that Williamson even thinks he could be the next Tory leader is greeted with incredulity and laughter among many colleagues. They say that given the party’s problems connecting with the public, the answer isn’t a grey man who lacks public speaking skills, media experience, ministerial nous or even a clear political agenda. That’s even before you take into account what is obviously a deep dislike of him among some MPs. What’s odd is that the PM wasn’t aware of the depth of that dislike, but then again it’s normally the job of the whips to provide such intelligence…and he and Julian Smith may not have been best placed to pass it on.
There’s a very good reason why Chief Whips are usually older MPs, with the job seen as a final role in office, not a stepping stone to further advancement: they advise PMs on promotions and have to be seen as ‘out of the game’. The new occupant of the post, Julian Smith, is well-liked but he is also seen by some as Williamson’s leadership campaign manager. And for a PM already on the rack, that may be her biggest mistake of all.
While the PM’s tenuous grip on power is naturally preoccupying many, the Kelvin Hopkins revelations are a reminder that Labour and other parties have just as much to worry about on the sexual harassment front. The Telegraph’s Laura Hughes has been working off diary for months on the issue and it clearly paid off with her exclusive last night.
The Telegraph reports that Hopkins is alleged to have sent sexually inappropriate text messages to young activist Ava Etemadzadeh, and rubbed himself up against her after a political event. Labour issued a statement just before the Telegraph story went online, saying Hopkins had been suspended for unspecified ‘allegations’. The MP has yet to comment. But what makes this case worrying is the fact that the Labour party was informed of the claims, reprimanded Hopkins but he was then later promoted to the Shadow Cabinet. Did Corbyn himself misread the temperature of the allegations and how serious they were? Was he made aware of them in full?
Remember that Simon Danczuk was suspended from the party in December 2015, precisely the same time that the Hopkins allegations were known in the party. Their cases were very similar, but Hopkins was not suspended and Danczuk was. Party insiders are pointing out that Hopkins was a longstanding Campaign Group ally of the leader. He was also a close ally of Katy Clark, Corbyn’s political secretary. Will supporters of Corbyn argue that amid the chaos of the mass resignations in 2016, someone simply forgot to mention the reprimand before Hopkins was promoted? Some say Shadow Chief Whip Rosie Winterton handled the case as best she could but it was upto the leader’s office to make the big judgement call on suspension. And on promotion.
Jess Phillips told Radio 4’s Today programme she believes the case was handled “perfectly well” within the procedures at the time, and that she has spoken to Etemadzadeh who felt “real solidarity” with Dame Rosie. “I don’t think that it was sort of political expediency; I think that people just didn’t take it as seriously as it needed to be taken.” That in itself is pretty damning.
Many women MPs, on both sides of the House, know that Theresa May is appalled by the sexual misconduct that’s knocking her Government off course. But they also worry that she’s so weak that she can’t stamp it out without triggering sackings that threaten her entire administration. Well, if the Sun’s revelations last night are anything to by, May this week certainly showed Sir Michael Fallon the smack of firm government.
Tom Newton Dunn’s scoop (later followed by the Mail) reveals that Fallon quit after being confronted by the PM with a dossier of complaints from Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom about his sexually suggestive comments to her. The remarks were made when Fallon and Leadsom were both on the Treasury Select Committee between 2010 and 2012. Fallon categorically denies saying he had somewhere she could “warm” her hands. Leadsom refuses to comment.
The story suggests that it wasn’t just female journalists that were subjected to Fallon’s attentions. It also highlights just how important Leadsom’s intervention was on Monday in the Commons, when she set a new test for misconduct that included consequences for any behaviour that left women feeling ‘uncomfortable’. Still, one Fallon friend tells The Sun: “He made mistakes in the past, but what the f*** does Leadsom think she’s doing? We’re supposed to be a team. Does she want to bring down the whole f***ing Government?” There’s even a claim that Leadsom has ensured her own future: “Nobody’s going to dare to sack a whistleblower, are they?” Yes, that’s how fractious the Tory party is right now.
John Bercow reiterated yesterday that he wants the political parties to update their complaints procedures quickly. Labour MP Rachael Maskell claimed the Speaker himself once dismissed her concerns about bullying as ‘a women’s issue’. However, the Guardian reports that he’s so upset he’s written a letter to Maskell stating “this is totally and utterly wrong”. “I would never use, and have never used, that form of words.”
The Sun claims to know who was behind the infamous list of Tory MPs’ alleged sexual misconduct. It names a former aide to minister Philip Lee, who now works for a lobby firm Global Counsel. Lee says he has no knowledge of the claims. Meanwhile, a new group has been set up by female journalists to tackle harassment in the media industry. More proof that this issue is not just stuck in the silo of Westminster.
Someone in Government clearly felt yesterday was a very good day to bury bad news. There was a trio of tricky announcements dropped late, while everyone else was distracted by the fallout of the Fallon resignation: a delayed tax cut, some immigration stats (see below) and a U-turn on disability payments.
The Treasury “sneaked out” (copyright Peter Dowd, Labour’s Shad Chief Sec to the Treasury) the news that a tax cut for the self-employed would not come in for another year. Class 2 National Insurance Contributions (NICs) were due to end next April, but will now stay in place until 12 months later. Ahead of the Budget this month, Chancellor Philip Hammond is expected to save around £200m with the move and right now every little helps. Vince Cable calls it “a slap in the face” for White Van Man (and woman).
Another U-turn came on Personal Independence Payment (PIP). Following a high-level legal ruling in March, Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke has agreed to rewrite rules on claimants’ ability to carry out unsupervised daily tasks safely. Welfare officers will now be going through all existing cases to identify anyone entitled to a higher rate of PIP as a result of the decision, with payments set to be backdated to March. Some 10,000 people will see their benefits boosted by between £70 and £90 each week by 2023. Which is a good news story for them, but it’s still kinda embarrassing that a court forced it on the DWP.
The Home Office has lost track of nearly 56,000 foreign nationals liable to be deported, an independent inspector has found. The list, which includes convicted criminals and illegal immigrants, was revealed by the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration David Bolt. The tally of “declared absconders” includes more than 700 foreign national offenders (FNOs) who went missing after being released into the community.
Brandon Lewis, immigration minister, said the two reports by Bolt made for “difficult reading”. The Daily Express has splashed the shock figures on its front page, but other big news prevented similar treatments in other papers. The Sun does the story justice inside its pages, reporting there is “little evidence” that effective action is being taken to locate the vast bulk of absconders. The inspector also revealed foreign criminals can fail to attend meetings with staff on as many as 19 occasions before the alarm is raised. The paper points out it is 11 years since Labour Home Secretary John Reid declared the Home Office’s immigration systems ‘not fit for purpose’ – and says it’s clear nothing has changed.