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Gavin Williamson

Gavin Williamson. Photo: Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, licence linked below article

Kevin Ovenden analyses the Gavin Williamson affair and the bitter divisions which now wrack the Tory party

A government of integrity, competence and unity.

That was Rishi Sunak's promise on his coronation as Tory leader. It was dutifully echoed by most of the media which gave him a remarkably easy ride. 

A fortnight later, with the U-turn on attending the COP27 climate summit and now the resignation of Gavin Williamson, and the gilt is coming off all three of those pledges. 

There was widespread disbelief in the first place at the appointment of Williamson, twice sacked from previous cabinets. Most assumed that it was part of the deals that secured Sunak the leadership without a vote by members. 

Former chief whip Williamson was instrumental in the Sunak campaign to win majority support among MPs as he had been for Theresa May and to an extent for Boris Johnson.

Thus a grubby deal alongside the one bringing Suella Braverman back into the cabinet just six days after she'd had to resign. Labour has honed in on the two appointments - and it might soon be two resignations - as evidence of Sunak's 'lack of judgment'. 

There is certainly some truth in that. Sunak championed the 'eat out to help out' scheme that did little to help the hospitality industry, nothing for those in hardship, but did encourage wider circulation of Covid leading to a second lockdown. 

But there is more to it than question marks over Sunak's political competence. His coronation was a fix. The fractured Tory party in parliament was desperate to avoid another contest that went to the members who had chosen the unfathomably incompetent Liz Truss. 

That did not mean that Sunak's accession produced a surge of unity on the Tory benches. It merely papered over the cracks. And it depended upon keeping warring camps in check by placating and promoting key people. As late as Tuesday afternoon 10 Downing Street was apparently planning a release standing by Williamson and announcing he was to go on 'anti-bullying training'. 

This  kind of technocratic, HR ploy was hopeless in the face of more and more MPs coming out with stories of just how unpleasant Williamson is. Managerialism meets politics. 

The point is that Sunak wanted to hang on to Williamson. It cannot have been for any great talent. It must only have been as a quid pro quo and to have the serial bully onside. 

Enraged

The problem of dealing with scandal-ridden Braverman is greater. She is a placeholder for the swivel-eyed European Research Group of Tory MPs. Indeed, it was her sending government documents to one of its luminaries that led her to be sacked. 

Getting rid of her would risk enraging the ERG, who have shown themselves, like their predecessors under John Major's government 30 years ago, as perfectly prepared to blow up a Tory government if they believe treachery is afoot. 

This is much more of a dilemma for Sunak than just trying to balance different factional interests in the Tory party - including those who think that Johnson is the only one who stands a chance of them winning the next election. 

The reason is that the social and economic crises in Britain mean not only confrontations with the unions and with popular opposition. They also mean decisions that will be unpopular with one section of Tory MPs or another. 

The budget statement on Thursday next week is about more than tax and spending announcements. It is about the whole direction the government takes. 

Back to austerity

Talk of a 'fiscal black hole' is already being used to justify a round of austerity 2.0 on already shattered public services. George Osborne is back on TV screens and in newspaper columns. There are rumours of abandoning the triple lock on pensions or, at the other end of the scale, extending a windfall tax on the gas and electricity companies. 

The issue facing the government is that whatever package it comes up with there are going to be blocs of opposition on its own benches to one part of it or another. Whether that is the free-market tax cutters, those eying seats they've only just won in the Midlands and North of England, embittered rivals, or those with a different strategy to the Treasury orthodoxy whose neoliberal model inflates the 'black hole'. 

So the seeming soap opera of another resignation or splits in the cabinet - whether over defence spending or how inhumane the immigration system should be - are underpinned by the deep contradictions of a Britain in manifold crisis and a fractured Tory party. 

Claims of integrity blew up in week one with the appointments of Williamson and Braverman. Competence: brought into question over two U-turns in a couple of days that are reminiscent of the chaotic Johnson government. As for unity - we are set to see more infighting and plotting. 

The Labour frontbench can relish the parliamentary knockabout stuff that arises from that to try to present itself as the competent government in waiting. But it is already showing signs of accepting that there is no alternative to austerity and also conceding all along the line on issues such as immigration, civil liberties and policing. 

So it will be down to the social movements, unions and campaigns to come together to exploit what are set to be bitter divisions among the Tories. The Tory party is a place where some very nasty people and some very nasty policies amplify a very nasty structural problem for the government and the British state. 

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Tagged under: Austerity Crisis Tories
Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.

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