The Tory leadership stakes have been upended this week, I say in The Sun today. Gavin Williamson’s elevation to defence secretary shows that he wants to be a contender and that several of those around Theresa May think he might be their best hope.
The most interesting question is why Williamson has decided to get out of Downing Street now. He has a sharp political brain and a good feel for the mood of the parliamentary party. So, he’d have known that a reshuffle where he was the only person to enter the Cabinet would put a big target on his back.
There are two explanations doing the round in Tory circles for why he has chosen to leave the whips office at such a vital time. The first is that he decided that it was time to get out before things got even trickier. He has never lost a vote on government business, but with hundreds of amendments been put down to the EU withdrawal bill it was becoming harder and harder for him to keep that record up. Colleagues have also been struck by how little he wanted to have to do with the whole sex pest investigation, he very much left that to his now promoted deputy. Finally, there’s the fact that you can only really pressure rebellious MPs so many times. Every time you do it, you become a little less effective. Interestingly, even Downing Street is talking about how some Tory MPs will ‘welcome a change in approach’ from the whips office.
But the more intriguing explanation is that Williamson has decided that there’s no time to waste in building up his public profile ahead of his leadership bid. This is making ministers and MPs wonder if Williamson has concluded that the Prime Minister might not have as long left as the conventional wisdom at Westminster has it.