Sir Gavin Williamson’s unfitness to hold a senior government job was no secret when Rishi Sunak put him in the cabinet. It was clear in the chaos of English schooling during the pandemic, when Sir Gavin was education secretary. It was clear to anyone who thought a defence secretary shouldn’t leak discussions from a national security council – the offence for which he was sacked by Theresa May in 2019.
The reputation for bullying and intimidation that led to the minister’s latest resignation may not have been broadcast so widely, but it is inconceivable that the prime minister was unaware of something that has been a grievance among Conservative MPs for years. In parliament on Wednesday, Mr Sunak could deny only knowledge of specific circumstances in the latest allegations – the Guardian’s report, for example, that Sir Gavin had told a senior Whitehall official to “slit your throat” and “jump out of the window”.
The prime minister also said that Sir Gavin’s departure from government demonstrated the integrity of his administration. It is true that disgraced ministers were in the habit of clinging on indefinitely under Boris Johnson, by which standard any kind of accountability is progress.
But even with the bar set that low, Mr Sunak can’t clear it when his judgment in picking ministers is the real test. He says that he “regrets” appointing someone who was then forced to resign, which is self-pity camouflaged as contrition. The prime minister laments the awkwardness of a situation that he had hoped would blow over.
The reason for having Sir Gavin in the government in the first place was not his competence as an administrator (he was a minister without portfolio), but to benefit from his capabilities as a backroom operator and wrangler of rebellious MPs. The very trait that many Tories saw as grounds for disqualification from the cabinet was the one that Mr Sunak saw as a recommendation. That is not the mark of a leader who is sincere in restoring professionalism “at every level of government”, as was promised on the threshold of No 10 only two weeks ago.
If Mr Sunak were serious about that ambition he might have recruited an independent ethics adviser. The post is still vacant after Mr Johnson’s appointees both resigned and Liz Truss failed to fill the gap. An inquiry into the question of whether parliament was misled over lockdown parties is reportedly being delayed by Downing Street’s failure to supply crucial evidence.
Questions of integrity will haunt the government because it is staffed with people, including the prime minister himself, who collaborated in the degrading of democratic norms and abandonment of probity under previous Downing Street regimes.
Those who have left government can also do damage. The spectacle of Matt Hancock appearing in I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! is a case in point. Mr Hancock was the health secretary during the pandemic and is still a serving MP. Flagrant self-promotion in neglect of constituents hardly suggests regard for standards in public life.
Mr Hancock’s cavorting and Sir Gavin’s disgrace are symptoms of the same decay, the same rot from complacency in power. There is too much accumulated resentment in the parliamentary Tory party for bygones to be bygones. Voters can smell the staleness of a haggard administration even if it claims to be under fresh management.