From PM’s loyal enforcer to gaffe-prone ‘Private Pike’

When he landed the defence job, Gavin Williamson achieved the highly unusual distinction of being promoted directly into the Cabinet without having held a more junior ministerial job.

The PM may now be regretting that decision to overlook his lack of experience after sacking a former close colleague who acquired the nickname Private Pike – after the hapless Dad’s Army character – during his stint in the Ministry of Defence.

The 42-year-old MP for South Staffordshire had been a vital part of Theresa May’s inner circle after being appointed as her chief whip when she took office in July 2016.

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson
Gavin Williamson, pictured during a military exercise on Salisbury Plain, strenuously denies the leak (Steve Parsons/PA)

As a whip, he was best known in Westminster for keeping a pet tarantula named Cronus in a glass box on his desk, which is said to have provided added menace when dealing with errant MPs in his role as Mrs May’s enforcer.

As Defence Secretary, he quickly became known for a tendency to put his foot in his mouth.

Mr Williamson got his big break as parliamentary private secretary (PPS) to David Cameron from 2013-16 and was selected by Mrs May as her parliamentary campaign manager for the contest for the Conservative leadership triggered by Mr Cameron’s resignation following the Brexit referendum.

Elected to Parliament in 2010, Mr Williamson was swiftly appointed a PPS in the Northern Ireland Office in 2011 and then held a succession of “bag-carrier” posts, acting as the eyes and ears in the House of Commons for ministers Hugo Swire, Owen Paterson and Patrick McLoughlin, before entering Number 10 as a member of Mr Cameron’s team.

Although unpaid, the role of PPS is seen as a useful staging post for a backbencher seeking ministerial office, but rarely have holders of the position been elevated quite as swiftly as Mr Williamson.

As he rose rapidly through the ranks, he was regarded as a right-hand man of Prime Minister May who remained by her side as other key allies fell by the wayside in the wake of her disastrous snap election.

As chief whip, he was prohibited from speaking in Parliament.

The defence job gave him a much higher profile, but things did not go well.

At the height of the furore over the Salisbury novichok attack in March 2018, Mr Williamson urged Russia to “go away and shut up” – prompting derision from critics.

In December the previous year, he was accused of pursuing a policy that “belongs in a Netflix series” after saying Islamist fighters should be hunted down and killed.

More recently, and perhaps more seriously, he was at the centre of a cabinet row in February as government sources blamed him for offending the Chinese and causing the cancellation of a crucial trade visit to Beijing by Chancellor Philip Hammond.

On that occasion, the then Defence Secretary had made a speech days before the mission in which he talked about sending a Royal Navy warship to the sensitive waters of the Indo Pacific, words that did not go down well in Beijing.

Some Westminster commentators speculated that some of the remarks that caused controversy were deliberately designed to boost his profile and his popular appeal with a view to boosting his chances of succeeding Mrs May as Tory leader.

He was also suspected being behind some of the anonymous briefings about Brexit developments with Cabinet, which were again seen as part of the jockeying for position in the Tory leadership race.

Although he has strenuously denied any involvement, Mr Williamson’s ambitions may have been holed below the waterline with his unceremonious sacking over the Huawei leak.

Born and raised in Scarborough by Labour-supporting parents, Mr Williamson went to a local comprehensive school and sixth form college before taking a science degree at the University of Bradford.

His background is in manufacturing and design at a pottery in Staffordshire and an architectural design company.

He was awarded a CBE in Mr Cameron’s resignation honours for political and public service.

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