Rishi Sunak regrets appointing 'bully' Gavin Williamson

UK prime minister said he was unaware of specific allegations made against his colleague

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves 10 Downing Street to head to the House of Commons on Wednesday. AFP
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Rishi Sunak was urged to get a backbone after he was accused of cowering to bullies in politics during a fierce clash with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer on Wednesday.

The British prime minister sought to defend his handling of the Gavin Williamson saga by insisting he was unaware of specific allegations made against his colleague when he appointed him to his Cabinet.

Mr Williamson, who last night resigned from government, had routinely intimidated others down through the years and had been “blurring the lines to normalise bullying behaviour”, the opposition leader, Sir Keir Starmer, claimed. He said the “pathetic bully” would not have been able to get away with his conduct if “people like the prime minister didn’t hand him power”.

After Mr Williamson handed in his resignation, the prime minister expressed “great sadness” over his departure.

At Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday Sir Keir attacked Mr Sunak over his choice of words, questioning how he thought the alleged victims would feel about them.

The prime minister countered the attack by saying he “obviously” regrets bringing his ally back into the Cabinet. Mr Sunak has in recent days faced scrutiny over his judgement after the allegations came to light.

Oliver Dowden, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who has been described as Mr Sunak’s “right-hand man”, has confirmed the prime minister was aware of a complaint made by former chief whip Wendy Morton when he appointed Mr Williamson a minister of state without portfolio. He is accused of sending her a string of expletive-laden messages in a row over arrangements for Queen Elizabeth II's funeral.

Sir Keir delivered a blow to the prime minister by accusing him of cowering to Mr Williamson, who was in the past twice sacked from government.

He argued that if the prime minister “cannot stand up to a run-of-the-mill bully” he has little chance of standing up to big business.

“Unequivocally the behaviour complained of was unacceptable and it’s absolutely right that the right honourable gentleman has resigned," the prime minister said.

“For the record I did not know about any of the specific concerns relating to his conduct as secretary of state or chief whip that date back some years.

“I believe that people in public life should treat others with consideration and respect and those are the principles that this government will stand by."

Asked if he regretted his decision to hand Sir Gavin the role of government minister, he replied: “I obviously regret appointing someone who has had to resign in the circumstances.

“But I think what the British people would like to know is that when situations like this arise, that they will be dealt with properly.

“And that’s why it is absolutely right that he resigned and it’s why it is absolutely right that there is an investigation to look into these matters properly.

“I said my government will be characterised by integrity, professionalism and accountability and it will.”

The Labour leader said his opponent had shown he is "so weak" that instead of challenging bullies "he hides behind them". The prime minister sought to move the conversation away from the latest scandal engulfing his Cabinet my saying his administration was focused on tackling illegal migration, strengthening the NHS and addressing the economic woes.

"The problem is he can't stand up to a run-of-the-mill bully so he has no chance of standing up to vested interests on behalf of working people," Sir Keir shot back.

Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, had defended the prime minister, who she said possessed the “highest degree of integrity and judgment” despite bringing the twice-sacked minister back into government while knowing of a complaint against him.

MPs have expressed doubt over Mr Sunak's judgment in light of the allegations against Mr Williamson and also his decision to reappoint Suella Braverman as home secretary less than a week after she was forced out for breaking the ministerial code.

Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the Labour Party, said the decisions were "a damning reflection of the appalling judgement of this weak prime minister".

Before his appearance at PMQs, Ms Keegan insisted Mr Sunak knew only about a “disagreement” between Mr Williamson and Ms Morton when handing him a role in the Cabinet Office.

“He didn’t know about any specific allegations, he hadn’t seen any text messages or anything like that,” she told LBC radio.

Updated: November 09, 2022, 3:38 PM