Sir Gavin Williamson MP, Minister without portfolio, master of the Machiavellian arts of dark Tory politics, glanced at his barely used ministerial red box for one last time and put his signature to his resignation letter. How had it come to this?
The spider and the spreadsheet
He emailed the latest copy of his Excel spreadsheet Cronus.xls (named after his pet tarantula) to his private Gmail account and deleted all other copies from his government laptop. He knew the information in this document could be the key to making it back to cabinet. After all, it had already worked for him three times, under three different prime ministers in his 12 years as an MP.
He was confused why it had failed to protect him for more than two weeks under the current incumbent of Number 10, but he knew it would allow him to keep fighting as he returned to the backbenches. Williamson picked up his framed picture of Francis Urquhart, signed by Ian Richardson (he thought little of the Kevin Spacey remake of House of Cards) and placed it carefully in his briefcase.
Williamson lays the groundwork
Back in 2010, as the newly elected MP for South Staffordshire (after a career in fireplaces and ceramics), Williamson already had his eyes on promotion and looked for ways to climb the greasy pole without delay. The answer came to him early in his time in parliament: it was obvious to him that he needed to have a network of MPs that he could control. This network would be a valuable resource he could deploy to boost support for any cause (or person) he chose. He would be able to demand a high price for his support.
He believed that all his colleagues had something to hide, and the thought occurred that he didn’t need to know what it was, he just needed his victims to THINK he knew what it was. Charisma and charm could take you a long way, but sometimes you needed a little extra.
In those early days, he used a real little black book, which he would pull out when he and his target were sitting alone in an office, or more typically a bar. When the conversation turned to scandal, as it often did, he would flick through it, ostentatiously write down the name of the MP and then (with elaborate ceremony) some random comment such as “red polar neck sweater, ink stain on trousers, big Arsenal fan”.
In later years, he pioneered the use of a mobile phone for this purpose. In either case the result was the same and his colleague would get the distinct impression that he, Williamson, had somehow learned about his or her guilty secret.
Subsequently, when a vote needed to be won, Williamson would make a great play of referring to his records. “Let’s see what we have on you”, he would say. “Mmmmm… We really don’t want to see this in the Sun do we?”. He was almost never challenged on what he knew, and his colleague would meekly accept the need to toe the party line. Once the hapless victim had demonstrated weakness, this was recorded as it made it almost certain the same trick would work again.
The technique worked brilliantly, and he acquired such a reputation as an effective operator that Teresa May made him chief whip. Of course, in this post he was able to gather a lot of genuine dirt, making his little black spreadsheet even more effective than his infamous pet spider.
In a classic example of the Peter principle, under which people are promoted to the level where they are incompetent, he was unexpectedly made defence secretary in 2017. His intellect and grasp of global security issues were amply demonstrated when he proclaimed “frankly, Russia should go away, and it should shut up”.
He was fired in 2019 for leaking sensitive information to the press.
Made it twice
He knew what to do next. He was an early supporter of Boris Johnson when he ran for Tory leader, partly because Johnson was likely to win but mainly because of the volume of scandalous material he held on the man.
There is no record of the conversation that resulted in Johnson offering Williamson the post of secretary of state for education. He served with extraordinary incompetence, especially during the exam grading crisis of the Covid pandemic. Many workers in the education sector came to pine for the good old days when Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings were in charge.
In September 2021 Johnson reshuffled his cabinet and even the spreadsheet could not save Williamson. However, further favours were called in and a knighthood was awarded in early 2022, described by the Liberal Democrats as “an insult to every child, parent and teacher who struggled through Covid against the odds”.
Made it thrice
Remarkably, Williamson pulled the same trick yet again and he supported Rishi Sunak in his ultimately successful bid for Tory leadership. A broad spectrum of MPs across the party voted for Sunak with many being persuaded by the former chief whip and his feared database of human failings. The reward was yet another return to cabinet, although no real job could be found for a man of such limited talent, as he was appointed minister without portfolio.
By this time though, Williamson had so many enemies that allegations of bullying and offensive behaviour quickly spread. The story snowballed and he was forced to resign less than two weeks after taking office.
Forced out … for now?
Sir Gavin Williamson closed his office door for the last time, left the building and walked slowly up Whitehall. As he walked, head down, he feverishly scanned his spreadsheet, trying desperately to identify the next probable Tory leader, fated to repeat an endless cycle of behind-the-scenes manipulation, promotion, failure, and disgrace.
He didn’t realise that in his hurry to keep his devastating secret spreadsheet safe, he had (perhaps in an unconscious attempt to break the doom loop of his career) emailed it to his near namesake, an investigative reporter at the Guardian.