Rishi Sunak 'obviously regrets' appointing Gavin Williamson as MP quits over bullying claims

Political Correspondent Romilly Weeks reports the latest on the staffing controversy surrounding Rishi Sunak's government

Rishi Sunak has admitted he regrets giving Sir Gavin Williamson a spot in his Cabinet due to the "circumstances" in which the MP resigned following a series of bullying allegations.

The prime minister faced MPs in the Commons on Wednesday following the loss of his ally, who stood down after accepting that accusations about his conduct had become "a distraction".

At Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Sunak came under increasing pressure to explain why he gave Sir Gavin – who had already been sacked by Theresa May and Boris Johnson – a senior ministerial role despite being aware he faced an investigation in relation to his behaviour.

The Labour leader opened his attack on the prime minister by addressing the allegations that Sir Gavin told a senior civil servant to go "slit your throat" and "jump out of a window".

Sir Keir Starmer questioned: "How does the prime minister think the victim of that bullying felt when he expressed 'great sadness' at his resignation?"

Mr Sunak said the "behaviour complained of was unacceptable" and that it was "absolutely right" that Sir Gavin resigned , but added: "For the record, I did not know about any of the specific concerns relating to his conduct as secretary of state or chief whip."

His comments were met with boos and heckles in the Chamber, before Sir Keir Starmer branded the disgraced MP as "a pathetic bully" who "spent years courting the idea he can intimate others" and that "it is precisely why the prime minister gave him a job".

"But he'd never get away with it if people like the prime minister didn't hand him power. So does he regret his decision to make him a government minister?" pressed the Labour leader.

"I obviously regret appointing someone who has had to resign in these circumstances," replied Mr Sunak.

"But I think what the British people would like to know is that when situations like this arise, that they will be dealt with properly."

Referencing what he said on the doorstep of No 10 when he became prime minister, Mr Sunak added: "I said my government will be characterised by integrity, professionalism and accountability - and it will."

Sir Keir continued his attack on the PM by branding him "weak" and argued if he "can't stand up to a run-of-the-mill bully", he has "no chance of standing up to vested interests on behalf of working people".

He again urged Mr Sunak to “find a backbone” and expand the windfall tax on fossil fuel giants, highlighting that Shell made £26 billion in record profits this year.

Sir Keir countered: “There’s only one party that crashed the economy and they’re all sitting there.

“It’s a pattern with this prime minister. Too weak to sack the security threat sat around the Cabinet table. Too weak to take part in a leadership contest after he lost the first one. Too weak to stand up for working people.

“He spent weeks flirting with the climate change deniers in his party, then scuttled off to Cop27 at the last minute.”

Mr Sunak hit out his opponent saying he "isn't focused on the serious issues confronting our country, adding: “We’re strengthening our economy, he’s backing the strikers. We’re supporting people with energy bills, he’s supporting the protesters."

The PM has also faced questions over reappointing Suella Braverman as home secretary after she was sacked for breaking ministerial rules by sending a draft official statement to an ally from her personal email.

Sir Gavin’s decision to quit as minister without portfolio on Tuesday night followed allegations he sent expletive-laden messages to former chief whip Wendy Morton complaining about being refused an invitation to the Queen’s funeral.

He was also the subject of claims he bullied a former official at the Ministry of Defence and engaged in "unethical and immoral" behaviour while he was chief whip under Theresa May.

Sir Gavin said the allegations against him were "becoming a distraction for the good work this government is doing for the British people" and was stepping back to "clear my name".

Late on Tuesday night the MP also said he will not take severance pay, adding it should instead go towards other Government "priorities", such as NHS waiting lists.

Sir Gavin quit following a meeting with the prime minister on Tuesday evening.

The prime minister said he was accepting the resignation "with great sadness" and told Sir Gavin "I would like to thank you for your personal support and loyalty."

Turning the attention to another Tory MP in hot water, Labour took a swipe at Matt Hancock's appearance on I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! as a teaser clip was released showing his first Bushtucker Trial.

Labour MP Neil Coyle was heckled by Tory MPs as he asked whether the prime minister will veto any appointments to the House of Lords for people who received fixed penalty notices (FPNs) linked to Covid lockdown breaches.

He added in the Commons: “These people were betrayed by the Conservatives who partied their way through lockdown.”As MPs booed Mr Coyle, he retorted: "You may not like it but you can all go eat kangaroo testicles for all I care.”

Mr Coyle added: “Those Conservatives covered Downing Street in suitcases of wine, in vomit and in fixed penalty notices."

Mr Sunak replied: “This government during Covid ensured we protected people’s jobs, that we supported the NHS to get through the difficult times and that we rolled out the fastest vaccine in Europe.”

Ahead of PMQs, Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner suggested Sir Gavin should quit as an MP if he is found to have bullied colleagues or officials.

"There’s no place for bullies in Parliament," she told BBC’s Newsnight.

She said Mr Sunak appointed Sir Gavin "with full knowledge of serious allegations about his conduct and repeatedly expressed confidence in him."

"This is yet another example of Rishi Sunak’s poor judgment and weak leadership," she added.

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union – which represents senior public servants, said there should be consequences for Sir Gavin if the investigations back up the claims against him.

He added: "Gavin Williamson’s resignation might take some of the political pressure off the Prime Minister, but it mustn’t be a get out of jail free card.

"The allegations against him must still be investigated, and if substantiated, there must be consequences for any future appointment."

Sir Gavin Williamson quit following a meeting with the Prime Minister on Tuesday evening Credit: Jacob King/PA

Pressure on Sir Gavin – and questions about Mr Sunak’s decision-making – began with the publication of messages he sent Ms Morton, and the revelation that the prime minister was informed of a complaint against him when he appointed his Cabinet.

As well as the internal Tory investigation, she is also understood to have referred the case to Parliament’s bullying process.

In a series of texts peppered with swear words, Sir Gavin accused Ms Morton of seeking to "punish" MPs out of favour with then-premier Liz Truss by excluding them from the Queen’s funeral, warning: "There is a price for everything."

Another complaint to Parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) has reportedly been made by a former senior official who worked with Sir Gavin when he was at the Ministry of Defence.

He is alleged to have told the official to "slit your throat" and on a separate occasion told them to "jump out of the window", according to a Guardian report.

On Tuesday night, former deputy chief whip Anne Milton alleged Sir Gavin used intimidatory and threatening tactics while he was chief whip in 2016-17.

She accused him of seeking to use an MP’s financial situation as leverage against them and sending an expletive-laden email about a female civil servant.

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