UK's Rishi Sunak faces Cabinet scrutiny over fresh Gavin Williamson 'bullying' claims

The Prime Minister has come under fire for appointing his ally to government while under investigation

Calls are growing for Rishi Sunak to sack Cabinet minister Gavin Williamson. PA
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British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is facing a fresh storm over his top team as more bullying claims against Sir Gavin Williamson come to light.

The government minister is accused of telling a senior civil servant to “slit your throat” and “jump out of the window” during his stint as head of the Ministry of Defence.

The Whitehall aide told the UK's Guardian newspaper that while working closely with Sir Gavin, the defence secretary had “deliberately demeaned and intimidated” them on a regular basis. The accuser said he had “shouted and raged” as part of a campaign of abuse witnessed by other civil servants.

The claims were reported after Wendy Morton accused Sir Gavin of sending her a string of threatening, “abusive” and expletive-laden text messages while she served as Tory chief whip. Ms Morton has referred the messages to the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, a parliamentary watchdog, to be investigated, it emerged on Wednesday.

Sir Gavin had already been subject to an internal Conservative Party probe over the matter.

Downing Street said it wanted to “take time to consider” the new allegations and was looking at “due process” before taking any further action.

“Obviously, these are new allegations that come forward this morning so it's right to we take time to set out any further steps," the prime minister's official spokesman said.

“Allegations should be taken seriously and if people do have concerns there are processes that they can follow.”

“The Prime Minister has been clear about the approach that he wants from ministers and the high standards that they will be held to. I think public would understand that in order to achieve that you need to follow the correct processes before setting up any further action.”

The Tory MP for South Staffordshire has said he “strongly” rejects the allegation he bullied an aide and insisted he has “enjoyed good working relationships” with officials. However, he stopped short of denying that he used the specific words outlined in the allegations.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak addressing the Cop27 summit in Sharm El Sheikh before arriving back in London to a storm of controversy surrounding Cabinet minister Sir Gavin Williamson. Reuters

The prime minister, who entered 10 Downing Street on a pledge to govern with professionalism and integrity, said the remarks were “not acceptable”. He has come under fire for bringing Sir Gavin back into government when he knew he was under investigation.

He has resisted pressure to sack him, saying he would await the outcome of the inquiry.

After the latest accusations were made public, Mr Sunak’s official spokesman said the prime minister was aware of "serious allegations" made against Sir Gavin.

“The prime minister has been clear, as he said on the steps of Downing Street, that integrity is vitally important," he told reporters.

“He will hold ministers to high standards.”

The spokesman said he was not aware of any discussions taking place between Mr Sunak and Sir Gavin following the reporting of the “slit your throat” claims. He said the prime minister had not been aware of such allegations when he handed Sir Gavin his role.

Sir Gavin, who previously served as education secretary, backed Mr Sunak is his campaign for the Tory leadership, and his appointment to the Cabinet as a minister without portfolio was seen as a reward for his support.

After returning from Egypt where he attended the Cop27 summit, Mr Sunak on Wednesday gathered his top team for a meeting as he came under fire for handing Sir Gavin a role.

Mr Sunak was already facing pressure to sack Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, amid national security concerns over her breaches of the ministerial code.

Mel Stride, the Work and Pensions Secretary, said it would be “utterly, utterly unacceptable” if Sir Gavin told a Whitehall employee to “slit your throat”.

He cautioned against speculation amid investigations, saying when the result is made public “we can take stock and come to a firm conclusion”.

Mr Stride, who spoke of an “aura or mystique around” Sir Gavin, insisted that no minister was “un-sackable”.

David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, said the fact that Sir Gavin and Ms Braverman have managed to cling on to their government positions amid furore shows the prime minister has an “appalling lack of judgment”.

“The Conservatives are ungovernable and unfit to govern,” the Labour MP added.

Christian Wakeford, Labour MP for Bury South, responded to the latest allegations made against Sir Gavin by saying: “None of the recent accusations surprise me. A deeply unpleasant man who should have no place in government.”

Mr Wakeford has in the past accused the Cabinet minister of threatening to withdraw funding for a school in his constituency while he toyed with the idea of voting for a motion criticising the government over free school meals. Mr Wakeford was a Tory MP at the time of the alleged threat, when Sir Gavin was education secretary.

At the time, Sir Gavin said “I don't have any recollection of the conversation as described” and insisted he had worked with Mr Wakeford to deliver a new school for the area.

Updated: November 08, 2022, 2:08 PM
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