The Day I Met Gavin Williamson – Westminster’s Machiavelli
Oliver Murphy looks back at his run-ins with our elected representatives.
I have had my fair share of encounters with disgruntled parliamentarians.
Take this, for example. It was the day of Boris Johnson’s election as leader of the Conservative Party and I had just left Andrew Adonis to stew in his office, only to find the DUP’s Nigel Dodds milling around College Green, outside Parliament. Poised, camera ready and microphone switched on, I approached the stone-faced unionist.
“What do you make of Mr Johnson’s victory?” I asked him. “Sorry, do I know who you are?” he replied. Red faced, I spluttered: “Um, probably not… But I am a journalist.” Determined to avoid me at all costs, Mr Dodds simply walked away saying “I’m sorry but you’ll have to go through our press office”. “But I have – three times, in fact,” I feebly called out, my voice fading slowly into insignificance.
Then there was the time I tried so desperately to question Dominic Grieve. Standing at the traffic lights opposite Big Ben, I manoeuvred myself next to him. “Mr Grieve, could I ask a few questions about today’s result?” I asked. “No can do I’m afraid,” he responded. After a slow pursuit, I was out-manoeuvred by Jon Snow who strengthened the esprit de corps, luring the Tory rebel to an impressive television camera.
Of all my dispiriting encounters, one stands out – ominously so. On a sweltering June day, I had just interviewed a dozen Remain protestors with sharp vignettes of fervent interventions from Leave campaigners. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of Westminster’s answer to Niccolò Machiavelli: Gavin Williamson.
It struck me as bizarre that the figure of such contention was here – so visible on the streets. It was surreal. After all, it had only been a few weeks since the former Chief Whip and disgraced Defence Secretary was ceremoniously dismissed after the unprecedented Huawei leaks, which Downing Street blamed on his backroom fixing.
Nevertheless, seeing his presence as the perfect opportunity to remedy my failure in finding a scoop, I made my move and approached my otherwise unknowing interlocutor. “Mr Williamson, who are you backing to be Prime Minister?” I cheerfully asked. Silence. Glaring at me from the corner of his eye, the disgruntled MP proceeded to walk away without comment. I made a split-second decision. Would I ignore the accounts that he is not a person to make an enemy of or was I going to take leave of my senses and push the issue further?
I may have just been into the political fray, but I wasn’t so naive as to let a disappointing reply – or lack of in this instance – to deter me from securing that all-important scoop. “Are you backing Boris Johnson?” I asked. “Absolutely,” came his reply. But for me, this wasn’t enough. “Why are you backing Boris Johnson?” I pressed. “Because he’s going to beat Jeremy Corbyn and deliver Brexit,” came the reply. For a politician mired in controversy, this exchange was rather insouciant, so I turned up the heat: “How can you support Boris Johnson when he wants to deliver no–”
Why does the dialogue abruptly end? Was this wet-behind-the-ears journalist so foolish that he turned the camera off? Was he in awe of the spirit of the moment? Far from it. Any hope of a potential breakthrough story was brought to an abrupt end when Mr Williamson proceeded to seize my camera from my hand, terminate the recording and admonish my “conduct” with a hint of schadenfreude and an iniquitous glint in his eye.
Gavin Williamson has always excelled in the shadowy underworld of Westminster. A former fireplace company executive, he revels in House of Commons intrigue and used his access to sensitive parliamentary gossip to provide vital intelligence to Number 10 under the leadership of David Cameron. His mission was to find out ‘where the bodies were buried’; every skeleton hidden in the cupboards of Tory MPs he knows about.
I never took seriously the often salacious accounts of his reputation. We have heard Mr Williamson kept a tarantula called Cronus on his desk. Cronus was the youngest of the Titans, which may or may not be a commentary on the state of modern politics and sound humorous, but is a sign of Williamson’s unconventional use of inducement – it was said that the eight-legged creature regularly terrified MPs into toeing the party line. Meeting him in person, I was amazed and shocked to be confronted with his true character. Was I right to question him?
Of course I was, because to be faced with an MP willing to trash an interview in this way confirms his well-documented House of Cards-esqe tendencies. And, as I took stock of the sudden drama that had ensued, the warnings that ‘Gavin Williamson is not someone to make an enemy of’ rang out in my ears. I might have missed a scoop, but at least I got a first-hand flavour of one of Westminster’s enigmatic figures.
Perhaps the biggest question though is this: if Mr Williamson was able to react in this manner to a simple question about Brexit, what would have happened if I dared ask him about the Huawei leaks?