Gavin Williamson

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Gavin Williamson

Official portrait of Rt Hon Gavin Williamson MP crop 2.jpg
Official portrait, 2020
Secretary of State for Education
In office
24 July 2019 – 15 September 2021
Prime MinisterBoris Johnson
Preceded byDamian Hinds
Succeeded byNadhim Zahawi
Secretary of State for Defence
In office
2 November 2017 – 1 May 2019
Prime MinisterTheresa May
Preceded byMichael Fallon
Succeeded byPenny Mordaunt
Chief Whip of the House of Commons
Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury
In office
14 July 2016 – 2 November 2017
Prime MinisterTheresa May
Preceded byMark Harper
Succeeded byJulian Smith
Member of Parliament
for South Staffordshire
Assumed office
6 May 2010
Preceded byPatrick Cormack
Majority28,250 (56.5%)
Personal details
Gavin Alexander Williamson

(1976-06-25) 25 June 1976 (age 45)
Scarborough, North Yorkshire, England
Political partyConservative
Joanne Eland
(m. 2001)
EducationRaincliffe School
Scarborough Sixth Form College
Alma materUniversity of Bradford

Gavin Alexander Williamson CBE MP (born 25 June 1976) is a British politician who has served as Member of Parliament (MP) for South Staffordshire since 2010.[2] A member of the Conservative Party, Williamson previously served in Theresa May's Cabinet as Secretary of State for Defence from 2017 to 2019, and as Secretary of State for Education under Boris Johnson from 2019 to 2021.

Williamson was born in Scarborough, North Yorkshire and was educated at Raincliffe School, Scarborough Sixth Form College and the University of Bradford. He was Chair of Conservative Students from 1997 to 1998 and served on the North Yorkshire County Council from 2001 to 2005. In the 2005 general election, he unsuccessfully stood to become MP for Blackpool North and Fleetwood.

Williamson was elected as MP for South Staffordshire at the 2010 general election. He served in David Cameron's second government as Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Patrick McLoughlin, the Secretary of State for Transport[3] prior to being appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Prime Minister in October 2013. From 14 July 2016 to 2 November 2017, he served as Chief Whip of the British House of Commons in Theresa May's government.[4]

Williamson served as Secretary of State for Defence from November 2017 to 1 May 2019, when he was dismissed as Defence Secretary, following a leak from the National Security Council; Williamson denied leaking the information about Huawei's potential involvement in the British 5G network.[5] After supporting Boris Johnson’s campaign to succeed May as Conservative Leader, Williamson quickly returned to the Cabinet as Education Secretary in July 2019. On 15 September 2021, he was removed as Education Secretary when Johnson reshuffled his cabinet.

Early life and career

Williamson was born in Scarborough, North Yorkshire. His father Ray was a local government worker, and his mother Beverly worked in a job centre.[6][7] They were both Labour Party voters.[8] He attended East Ayton Primary School and for his secondary education, Raincliffe School, a comprehensive. He studied A Levels in History, Government and Politics, and Economics at Scarborough Sixth Form College.[9] From 1994 to 1997, he completed a BSc in Social Sciences from the University of Bradford.[10]

Williamson was national chair of Conservative Students in 1997, the penultimate chair before it was merged into Conservative Future in 1998.[11] As chair he accused the National Union of Students (NUS) of acting like a "branch of the Labour Party."[12] In 2001, he was elected as the Conservative county councillor for Seamer division in North Yorkshire. In 2003, he was appointed as the County Council's "Young People's Champion." He did not stand for re-election in 2005.[13] Williamson is a former Deputy Chairman of Staffordshire Area Conservatives, Chairman of Stoke-on-Trent Conservative Association, and Vice-Chairman of Derbyshire Dales Conservative Association.[14]

Williamson worked as manager in fireplace manufacturer Elgin & Hall, a subsidiary of AGA, until 2004.[15][16] Williamson had become managing director of Aynsley China, a Staffordshire-based pottery firm by 2005. It sold ceramic tableware and he later became co-owner. In April 2005, Williamson was quoted in reports on the consumer rush to buy items with the wrong wedding date on for Charles and Camilla's wedding. He told The Telegraph, "We've literally had fights in our own retail shops. On the first day after the announcement I went into our factory shop in Stoke-on-Trent and we had people fighting over the last plate that we had on the shop floor. I think everybody has decided that this is going to be their pension."[6][17][18][19]

He has also worked for NPS North West Limited, an architectural design firm, until he became an MP in 2010.[3][20]

In the 2005 General Election, he stood unsuccessfully as the Conservative Party candidate in Blackpool North and Fleetwood.[17] After 2005, Williamson moved to Derbyshire.[17]

Parliamentary career

Williamson (right) meets with US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels in November 2017

Early parliamentary career (2010–2011)

In January 2010, Williamson was selected as the Conservative candidate in South Staffordshire for the 2010 general election. The incumbent, Patrick Cormack, had announced that he was retiring. The selection went to five ballots, but in the end Williamson won out over local councillor Robert Light in the final ballot.[21] Williamson was subsequently elected with a majority of 16,590 votes. Shortly after being elected, he cited his political inspiration as Rab Butler and, when asked what department of any he would most like to lead, he said the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills as it is "business and manufacturing that can lead the way out of difficult economic times".[22]

Williamson made his maiden speech on 8 June 2010, on the same day as Nicky Morgan and Kwasi Kwarteng. During his speech, he said that "We do not sing enough the praises of our designers, engineers and manufacturers. We need to change that ethos and have a similar one to that of Germany or Japan. We will have a truly vibrant economy only when we recreate the Victorian spirit of ingenuity and inventiveness that made Britain such a vibrant country, as I am sure it will be again."[23] Williamson campaigned on a number of issues in his first year in Parliament.

In July 2010, Williamson called for a new law to allow local authorities to clamp down on car boot sales that disrupted traffic flow, citing villages in his constituency as examples.[24] In June 2011, he expressed support for postwoman Julie Roberts, who had been suspended after clinging for over a mile onto the bonnet of her post van that had been stolen. He said that "People want her back in work and they want the Royal Mail to show some common sense and some common decency" and asked the Royal Mail to reinstate her into her old job.[25] Williamson was one of several MPs who was absent or abstained on 21 March 2011 vote on supporting UN-backed action in Libya. The vote ultimately passed 557–13.[26]

Parliamentary Private Secretaryships (2011–2016)

In October 2011, Williamson was appointed as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister of State for Northern Ireland, Hugo Swire. He replaced Conor Burns, who became Owen Paterson's new PPS.[27] In September 2012, Williamson became PPS to Patrick McLoughlin, Secretary of State for Transport, and in 2013 became PPS to the Prime Minister, David Cameron.[28]

In Parliament, Williamson was a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee and was Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Motor Neurone Disease.[3]

Williamson supported the United Kingdom's remain campaign during the 2016 EU membership referendum.[29][30][31]

Williamson voted against an investigation into Tony Blair's role in the Iraq War.[32]

Chief Whip (2016–2017)

Following David Cameron's resignation, Williamson "privately vowed" to stop the front-runner Boris Johnson from becoming Conservative Party leader. He assessed Theresa May to be the likeliest candidate to defeat Johnson, offered his help to her, and was invited to be her parliamentary campaign manager.[8] When May became prime minister, Williamson was appointed Chief Whip.[8]

Following the Conservative–DUP agreement after the 2017 General Election, Williamson visited Belfast to discuss arrangements with the DUP.[33]

Defence Secretary (2017–2019)

Williamson was appointed Secretary of State for Defence on 2 November 2017 after the resignation of Sir Michael Fallon the preceding evening.[34][35]

In February 2018, Williamson dined with Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of a former Putin minister, in exchange for a £30,000 donation to the Conservative party.[36] Later that month, Williamson alleged that the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, in meeting a Czech diplomat (later revealed to be a spy) during the 1980s, had "betray[ed]" his country. In response to the statement, a spokesman for Corbyn stated: "Gavin Williamson should focus on his job and not give credence to entirely false and ridiculous smears".[37]

Williamson meeting with United States Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis in 2017

Williamson has supported the Saudi Arabian-led military intervention in Yemen against the Shia Houthis despite concerns from human rights activists and Labour MPs about war crimes allegedly committed by the Saudi military.[38][39]

On 15 March 2018, in the wake of the Salisbury poisoning, Williamson answered a question about Russia's potential response to the UK's punitive measures against Russia by saying that "frankly, Russia should go away, and it should shut up".[40] Meanwhile, Major-General Igor Konashenkov, the spokesman of the Russian Defence Ministry, said: "The market wench talk that British defence secretary Gavin Williamson resorted to reflects his extreme intellectual impotency".[41][42] Williamson's remark was quoted by the president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, who posted a comment on his official Twitter account: "The Kremlin's 'chemical attack' in the UK is nothing but an encroachment on British sovereignty. And our message to Russia is the same as that of British defense secretary Gavin Williamson: 'shut up and go away'."[43]

Williamson during the MSC 2019

In December 2018, Williamson expressed "grave" and "very deep concerns" about the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei providing technology to upgrade Britain's services to 5G. He accused China of acting "sometimes in a malign way".[44] China's Defence Ministry spokesman Wu Qian criticised Williamson's comments, saying: "The remarks just reinforced the deep-rooted ignorance, prejudice and anxiety among some British people."[45]

On 11 February 2019, Williamson delivered the speech "Defence in Global Britain" at the Royal United Services Institute outlining the future direction of the British armed forces.[46] The speech, among other things, outlined plans to send Britain's new aircraft carrier to the Pacific;[47] the Chinese Government in turn cancelled trade talks with Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond and prompted Hammond to state that the decision to deploy the aircraft carrier was premature.[48][49] The Mail on Sunday quoted an unnamed ally of Hammond comparing Williamson to Private Pike, a hapless character in the sitcom Dad's Army.[50]

On 1 May 2019, Williamson was asked to resign from his position as Defence Secretary, following the leaking of confidential National Security Council information related to Huawei's potential involvement in the UK's 5G network. He refused to resign because he felt this would incriminate him and be seen as an admission that he was responsible for the leak, and was therefore sacked.[51] Theresa May said that she had "compelling evidence" that Williamson had leaked the information and that she had "lost confidence in his ability to serve in his role". Williamson vehemently denied the allegation, saying that he 'swore on his children's lives he was not responsible',[52] and said that a "thorough and formal inquiry" would have vindicated his position.[53][54] At the time, Opposition MPs called for a police investigation into the matter,[53][54] but the matter was closed.

Education Secretary (2019–2021)

Williamson became Secretary of State for Education after Boris Johnson's election as Prime Minister on 24 July 2019.[55][56]

Following the deplatforming of history professor Selina Todd and former Home Secretary Amber Rudd by student societies at Oxford University, in March 2020 Williamson called for "robust action" to enforce free speech codes, and stated that the government would intervene to protect freedom of speech at universities if they failed to do so themselves.[57] HuffPost reported that Williamson's department had drafted legislation to "strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities".[58] Williamson brought forward the legislation, titled the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, in May 2021.[59]

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Williamson announced that schools in England would close from 20 March 2020 until further notice. He said that exams in that academic year would not go ahead.[60] On 6 January 2021, Williamson announced GCSE, AS and A-Level exams would once again not go ahead for students in the academic year, being replaced with teacher assessed grades.[61]

On 15 September 2021, Williamson was removed as Education Secretary after Boris Johnson reshuffled his cabinet.[62]

Exams controversy

In August 2020, he apologised to schoolchildren for the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. He said "...where we haven't got everything great, of course, I'm incredibly sorry for that". There was a lot of concern over the A Level results which, due to all exams having been cancelled in 2020, were based on Ofqual-moderated teacher assessments rather than on moderated exam results.[63][64] About 39% of results were below the teacher assessment (compared to 79% in 2019) – Ofqual accused some teachers of submitting "implausibly high" predictions.[65] Ofqual rescinded the advice it had given on how the appeals system would operate.[66][67] The Daily Telegraph reported that Williamson had repeatedly defended the algorithm method as the fairest way to produce grades avoiding grade inflation, though several Ofqual board members had come to believe the algorithm method had been shown to be politically unacceptable.[68]

On 17 August 2020, Ofqual and Williamson announced that the algorithm method for calculating A Level results would be abandoned, and teacher assessments would be used instead, after pressure from within the Conservative Party and the claim that they had lost the confidence of the teaching profession. There were calls for Williamson to resign, for what The Daily Telegraph called "the fiasco". University admission caps were relaxed, as places had already been allocated based on the algorithm results and the change meant many more students would now meet their first-choice university admission offer grades. Teacher assessment would also be used instead of the Ofqual algorithm for GCSE results due to be announced three days later.

In January 2021, GCSE exams were cancelled. The education secretary stated that schools can use optional exams to decide their students' grades. In April 2021, on 7 April, Williamson stated a mobile phone policy ban to be introduced in schools; he also commented that students' behaviour had become worse over the period of lockdown in January. This comment was received with backlash from parents, teachers, and headteachers, claiming that "schools already had bans in place" and that Williamson was "not focusing on important matters".[69][70]

Personal life and honours

Williamson married Joanne Eland, a former primary school teacher, in 2001.[1] The couple have two daughters.[14] He was a charity trustee at a Citizen's Advice Bureau, and a school governor.[3]

Williamson is a patron of the World Owl Trust and while chief whip kept a Mexican redknee tarantula, known as Cronus, in his parliamentary office,[6] for which he was criticised by parliamentary authorities in November 2016.[71]

In 2015, he was sworn in as a member of the Privy Council of the United Kingdom, giving him the Honorific Title "The Right Honourable" for life. In the 2016 Prime Minister's Resignation Honours, Williamson was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) "for political and public service".[72]

In January 2018, it was reported that Williamson, while he was managing director of fireplace firm Elgin & Hall in 2004, had an affair with a married colleague.[15][16] He discussed the affair in an interview with the Daily Mail which he called a "dreadful mistake".[15] The Sunday Telegraph reported that a senior co-worker stated that the woman involved was in tears when reporting the relationship to her line manager and that Williamson was subsequently the subject of a meeting with managers.[73] Days after this meeting, he left the firm.[74]


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External links

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Patrick Cormack
Member of Parliament
for South Staffordshire

Political offices
Preceded by
Mark Harper
Chief Whip of the House of Commons
Succeeded by
Julian Smith
Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury
Preceded by
Michael Fallon
Secretary of State for Defence
Succeeded by
Penny Mordaunt
Preceded by
Damian Hinds
Secretary of State for Education
Succeeded by
Nadhim Zahawi
Party political offices
Preceded by
Mark Harper
Conservative Chief Whip of the House of Commons
Succeeded by
Julian Smith