Fresh conduct allegations around Gavin Williamson 'serious', says Downing Street
Watch ITV News Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana's report on the allegations around Sir Gavin Williamson's conduct
Downing Street is undertaking an informal investigation over "serious" bullying allegations about Sir Gavin Williamson after it was claimed he told a senior civil servant to "slit your throat".
Rishi Sunak, who is facing increasing backlash over his decision to bring his ally back into government, still has confidence in the under-fire minister despite the latest incendiary accusations, Downing Street said.
On Tuesday, former deputy chief whip Anne Milton accused Sir Gavin of seeking to use an MP’s financial difficulties as leverage against them and sending an expletive-laden email about a female civil servant.
Ms Milton, who was deputy chief whip from May 2015 to June 2017, described his behaviour as “unethical and immoral”, claiming: “I think he feels that he’s Francis Urquhart from House Of Cards.”
It follows earlier claims that Sir Gavin told a senior civil servant to “slit your throat”, while the Tory party and Parliament’s bullying watchdog are looking into allegations made by former chief whip Wendy Morton.
Ms Milton, who was stripped of the Tory whip during the Brexit rows in 2019 and subsequently lost her seat, told Channel 4 News: “I got the impression that he loved salacious gossip, and would use it as leverage against MPs if the need arose.”
She said that when the whips’ office gave some financial assistance to an MP, Sir Gavin told her that when she handed over the cheque she should make sure “he knows I now own him”.
She questioned Mr Sunak’s decision to give Sir Gavin a ministerial job, saying: “I think (at) best it was probably a bit naïve. I don’t know that there are many people that would hang out the bunting to see Gavin Williamson back in government.”
The claims by Ms Milton follow allegations that Sir Gavin clashed with a civil servant while he was defence secretary.
But the allegations, including that Sir Gavin “deliberately demeaned and intimidated” the civil servant on a regular basis, will add to the calls for the prime minister to sack him.
It follows a report from The Guardian that claims - according to a Ministry of Defence (MoD) official - Sir Gavin allegedly told a senior civil servant to “slit your throat” in front of colleagues in a meeting while he was defence secretary.
On another occasion the twice-sacked minister allegedly told them to "jump out of the window" as part of what they felt was a campaign of bullying, they claimed.
Sir Gavin Williamson now faces a series of inquiries into his conduct. An internal Conservative Party inquiry over alleged bullying texts sent to former Conservative chief whip, Wendy Morton, is currently ongoing.
He is also facing an independent investigation by the parliamentary watchdog over the messages, an MP close to Ms Morton told ITV News.
Sir Gavin said he “strongly” rejects the bullying allegation and insisted he has “enjoyed good working relationships” with officials.
However, it is understood Sir Gavin has not denied using those specific words.
Rishi Sunak has had a difficult debut after senior members of his government - first Suella Braverman and now Sir Gavin Williamson - found themselves embroiled in controversy, ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston said
Sir Gavin is the second controversial Cabinet appointment to have marred the prime minister's first few weeks in office, after he came under pressure to fire Home Secretary Suella Braverman over her handling of an overcrowded migrant processing centre in Kent.
Downing Street said on Tuesday that Mr Sunak still has confidence in Sir Gavin - but described the latest allegations as “serious”.
The prime minister's official spokesperson said: “Obviously, there have been further allegations reported this morning. Those are serious allegations that have come in.
“It’s true that no formal complaint has been made but we want to consider proper processes before commenting further.”
It was unclear how the government would launch a formal investigation, but the Cabinet Office’s Propriety and Ethics team would be one option for handling a complaint.
But Mr Sunak’s spokesman indicated he would not feel the need to wait until the resolution of existing investigations to act.
“I don’t think he necessarily feels that the idea would be for him to wait until both of those things have fully concluded,” the official said.
“Obviously he would act if and when he felt it was appropriate to do so.”
It comes after Sir Gavin, who is a Cabinet Office minister, came under fire after accusing Wendy Morton of using the Queen's death to “punish” senior MPs who were out of favour with Liz Truss’ government.
The exchange of messages, obtained by The Sunday Times, reportedly concluded with him saying: “Well let’s see how many more times you f*** us all over. There is a price for everything."
Downing Street did not say whether Mr Sunak has set up any meetings with Sir Gavin, who holds the vague brief of “minister without portfolio” in the Cabinet Office.
On Tuesday afternoon, the government published a list of the minister's responsibilities on the official gov.uk website - they include communications, property and conflict stability.
The work and pensions secretary Mel Stride told Sky News on Tuesday that if Sir Gavin did make the comments alleged in The Guardian it is "utterly, utterly unacceptable".
"But at the moment it is in the realm of media speculation," he warned.
Mr Stride continued: “There is an independent inquiry, as you know, going on around another… alleged incident between himself and the then-chief whip Wendy Morton.
“I think the important thing we do now is not to start intervening… and opining on who’s right and wrong or what may or may not have happened, but to wait for the results of that investigation.
“And then when we have that, and any other investigation that may be triggered in the meantime, then I think we can take stock and come to a firm conclusion.”
Mr Stride said he understands that Ms Morton herself made the referral to the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme. He added that no minister is "un-sackable".
Deputy Labour Leader Angela Rayner said the prime minister made an "appalling error of judgement" in re-appointing Sir Gavin.
"Rishi Sunak has made an appalling error of judgement in appointing and then propping up Gavin Wiliamson, despite being warned about his behaviour," she wrote on Twitter."Even now the PM says he has 'full confidence' in his disgraced minister. The buck stops with him."
Grant Shapps said Sir Gavin should not have sent the messages to Ms Morton but defended his colleague.
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Asked if Sir Gavin is a bully while arriving at a Cabinet meeting in Downing Street on Tuesday morning, the business secretary told reporters: “Not in my experience.
“Clearly he shouldn’t have sent those (messages), he’s recognised that and he’s apologised about it.”
Speaking about the alleged “slit your throat” comments, he added: “I don’t think there was a formal complaint, so let’s wait and see what’s said about that.”
The prime minister is already under fire for bringing Sir Gavin back into the government when he knew he was under investigation for allegedly bullying Ms Morton.
Labour has continued to maintain the pressure on the government, with shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper on Tuesday accusing the prime minister of making “grubby political deals that aren’t in the national interest” to appoint Sir Gavin and Home Secretary Suella Braverman.
A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “The Cabinet Office has not received notice of any formal complaints about Gavin Williamson’s behaviour from his time at the Ministry of Defence or any other department.”
Sir Gavin, who was knighted by Boris Johnson earlier this year, was sacked first by Theresa May as defence secretary for leaking details of a National Security Council meeting, and then by Mr Johnson as education secretary over the Covid-19 A-levels debacle.
However, he was regarded as a key figure in Mr Sunak’s campaign over the summer during his campaign to become party leader.