Embattled Cabinet Office minister Sir Gavin Williamson is facing new bullying allegations less than 24 hours after he was reported to parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme over messages sent to former Conservative Party chief whip Wendy Morton.
Williamson, who was brought back into government by new prime minister Rishi Sunak two weeks ago, now stands accused of telling a senior official at the Ministry of Defence to “slit your throat” and “jump out of the window” during his time as defence secretary, from 2017 to 2019.
The allegations, first reported by the Guardian, are said to have been made in the presence of other civil servants on separate occasions and were described by the unnamed aide as part of a sustained campaign in which Williamson “deliberately demeaned and intimidated” them.
Williamson’s behaviour is said to have been reported to the MoD’s then-head of HR but the official decided not to pursue a formal complaints procedure.
In a statement today, the minister without portfolio dismissed the suggestion he had bullied staff and said no complaints had been raised with him.
“I strongly reject this allegation and have enjoyed good working relationships with the many brilliant officials I have worked with across government,” Williamson said. “No specific allegations have ever been brought to my attention.”
Sir Stephen Lovegrove was permanent secretary at the MoD for the entire period that Williamson was secretary of state.
Williamson was sacked as defence secretary by then-PM Theresa May after a leak investigation concluded there was “compelling evidence” he was responsible for unauthorised disclosure of information from the National Security Committee.
‘Civil servants have no-one to investigate complaints’
Wendy Morton’s complaint involves allegedly abusive WhatsApp messages sent by Williamson in September and will ultimately be examined by parliament’s independent commissioner for standards Kathryn Stone, or Daniel Greenberg who will take over the role in January.
However, the process is only available to past or present MPs, members of the House of Lords and parliamentary staff.
Dave Penman, general secretary of senior civil servants’ union the FDA, noted that the realty is starkly different for departmental officials, who do not currently have recourse to anyone at the highest level of government to investigate allegations of bullying on the part of ministers.
In a comment aimed at the PM on Twitter, Penman asked: “who exactly would investigate” a complaint by a civil servant against a minister.
The last two independent advisers on ministers’ interests quit in less than two years under former PM Boris Johnson. Sir Alex Allan resigned after Johnson refused to accept his finding that then-home secretary Priti Patel had bullied Home Office staff.
Allan’s successor, Christopher Geit, lasted barely more than a year in the role. He quit in June saying Johnson had put him in an “impossible and odious position” related to a proposed deliberate breach of the ministerial code.
The post has been vacant since Lord Geidt walked out, amid suggestions that the whole system for overseeing ministers interests and standards at the highest level of government could be reformed.
At least one outstanding investigation is awaiting completion.
DfE and Ofqual heads roll on Williamson’s watch
Williamson was back in government as education secretary within three months of leaving the MoD in disgrace, returning when Johnson succeeded May as prime minister in July 2019.
Just over a year later, DfE perm sec Jonathan Slater was sacked by Johnson following the debacle over the use of algorithms to award A-Levels and other qualifications when the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of exams. Ofqual chief executive Sally Collier also stood down in recognition that the regulator needed “new leadership”.
Both departures were seen as attempts by Johnson to avoid having to sack Williamson from his cabinet role. Nevertheless, Williamson was shuffled out of government in September 2021 and given a knighthood.
Williamson will ‘still be in government at Christmas’, minister says
Work and pensions secretary Mel Stride – also brought back into government two weeks ago – told Sky News he believed Williamson would still be in post at the Cabinet Office at Christmas.
But he stopped short of offering his full backing to the minister without portfolio and said it would be “utterly, utterly unacceptable” if Williamson had used the words allegedly directed to the MoD civil servant.
Stride said he believed the independent parliamentary investigation into Morton’s complaint “will take some time” and urged people to “wait and see” what it concludes.
“The prime minister has made it clear that [Williamson is] an important member of his cabinet,” Stride said.
The parliamentary investigation will not be probing the allegations of bullying at the MoD.