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Bullying accusations of Gavin Williamson – What does this say about the culture of conservative politics?

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Bristol chapter.

Sir Gavin Williamson has been continuously described as a political ‘survivor’ due to his repeated removal from cabinet, then subsequent return to governmental roles throughout his career. He is no stranger to controversy, having been sacked from his previous positions of education secretary and defence secretary. He was sacked by Theresa May from his position of defence secretary as a consequence of accusations that he leaked private information. However, he was then rehired as education secretary a few months later when Boris Johnson came into power.

This role was intensified by the difficult decisions to be made regarding the reopening of schools and the methods of examinations to be used in place of GSCE’s and A-level exams during the coronavirus pandemic. Inconsistent reports of how pupils were to be graded in 2020 led to high levels of criticism toward Williamson and contributed to his removal from cabinet in September 2021. His less than flawless past did not stop him from receiving a knighthood in March of this year for his contribution to public and political service. His nomination for such honour has been scrutinised by Bridget Phillipson, who suggested Williamson’s legacy is ‘astonishing and disgraceful’, and by Geoff Barton who highlights the endless U-turns implemented throughout his time in cabinet.

Resultingly, many were surprised by Rishi Sunak’s decision to reappoint him as Cabinet Office minster last month, a choice which became increasingly contested once bullying accusations against Williamson came to light. A formal complaint has been lodged against him by a Ministry of Defence official who claims Williamson told them to ‘slit your throat’ and ‘jump out of the window’ during their time working under him as defence secretary. Text messages between Williamson and Wendy Morton are also being investigated due to the offensive and expletive language used by Williamson, due to his infuriation of his perceived exclusion from the Queen’s funeral. In response to these accusations, he has been forced to resign from cabinet once again, and while he is apologetic of his choice of vocabulary in his messages to Morton, he continually denies further accusations of bullying and insists he is being mischaracterised. 

The revelation of such behaviour is increasingly interesting in light of the bullying accusations also being made against deputy prime minister Dominic Raab. His behaviour during his stint as Brexit secretary in 2018 has been deemed unprofessional due to Raab consistently loosing his temper, intimidating, and even bullying his private office. This sentiment is shared by victims of Williamson who claims he created an environment in which they felt ‘demeaned and intimidated’ due to the secretary’s tendency to shout and berate those who worked under him. Priti Patel has also been accused of creating an ‘atmosphere of fear’ for civil servants in the home office, failing to treat officials with the respect they deserve.

The recurrent reports of high up members of the conservative party acting with hostility and aggression towards those who work under them have understandably led to questions as to how such behaviour has been tolerated within the Tory government. This lack of empathy could even be seen as being rewarded within politics, considering how members who possess character traits such as ruthlessness and egoism seem to be rewarded and promoted within parliament. While determination, ambition and assertiveness are essential to a successful political career, there must be monitoring in place to ensure behaviour within the party is not inappropriate or with malice intent. Considering how Williamson and Sunak have both partaken in anti-bullying campaigns, it would be hypocritical for them to not hold the same standards for the actions of officials within government. The allegations mentioned could begin to normalise holding politicians accountable for their behaviour and hopefully will make others feel more comfortable speaking out about their experiences. High stake work environments often are seen as synonymous with conditions of competitiveness, overwork and poor treatment of lower-level workers by their superiors. However, more people are increasingly beginning to see that this should not be the case, and workers deserve to be treated with respect at the workplace.

Ultimately, we should care about who we allow to access these positions of power, as they are responsible for making crucial decisions about the lives of British people. Thus, we should encourage the promotion of those who hold dear the traits of honestly, decency and empathy and make it apparent that cruelty of any form will not be tolerated. 

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Lexie Turley

Bristol '24

Hi i'm Lexie a second year philosophy and politics student! I am most interested in politics and thus hope to discuss current political issues, particularly British politics in current uncertain times. I am also committed to learning about wellness and mental health and hope to share behavioural tips and tricks to help with boosting mood and wellbeing for a better more rounded life.