To say that Gavin Williamson’s appointment as Defence Secretary has received a mixed reaction is to suggest, wrongly, that there is a balance of opinion on both sides. Most Conservative MPs I have spoken to today are just shocked that someone with no departmental experience is now in charge of the biggest department of all, with some of the biggest budgetary challenges.
‘I’m not sceptical, because that would suggest I hadn’t reached a conclusion,’ said one colleague. ‘I’m appalled. He’s smarmy. He uses bad language about other people. He is not to be trusted.’ Others have no problem with Williamson himself, seeing him as one of the better whips they’ve encountered and even a friend, but are dismayed that someone who one minister describes as a ‘child’ is now in one of the most senior Cabinet positions when others were more deserving.
So why has May appointed the South Staffordshire MP, rather than one of his many colleagues with ministerial experience? The consensus seems to be that she has such a small pool of people who she knows and trusts that she didn’t feel she had anyone else to turn to, and this in turn has led a number of Tory MPs to agree with Gary Streeter’s assessment of the party, which is that it is starting to resemble the Conservatives in the 1992-97 parliament. Some of those who share this bleak view do still think they could turn things around, saying that all that really matters is that the party secures a good Brexit, but others argue that May’s handling of the scandal and mini-reshuffle have undermined her authority to the extent that it is difficult to see her surviving all the way to the end of Brexit.