Wednesday 19 August 2020 5:10 am

Gavin Williamson smirks on — proving that this government values loyalty over competence

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then there is one image that sums up the whole sorry mess of the A-level results fiasco.

No, not one of the photos of tearful students, quivering with outrage and despair that their university places had been snatched away by a heartless algorithm. Rather, it is a photo of education secretary Gavin Williamson that accompanied his announcement of a U-turn on Monday.

Political photos of this nature always look embarrassingly staged, but Williamson’s is in a league of its own. With a smirk that looks more like a Tinder profile pic than an apology to the nation’s children, he blends into the Union Jack behind him, dwarfed both in size and impact by the whip lying across the front of his desk.

Read more: Tory backbencher says Gavin Williamson could be in line for autumn axeing

Why, asked bemused onlookers, does Williamson even own a whip? And why has he deliberately placed the whip centre-stage in what was supposedly an illustration of a serious political statement?

The answer to the first question is easy. Williamson used to be chief whip for Theresa May. It was his job to persuade, bribe, or bully Tory MPs into voting with the government. The riding crop that dominates the photo is a visual gag, the kind of thing you might find funny if you spent all your time in Westminster surrounded by other frenzied politicos. But that doesn’t explain why he chose to pose with it. 

This may seem rather trivial when the question du jour is when will Williamson resign or be sacked. The answer to that one is simpler: not yet. Despite national fury, unanimous condemnation from the papers and calls from Conservative backbenchers for him to go, Boris Johnson is reportedly standing by his man. 

While there are rumours that Williamson might be a casualty in the expected autumn reshuffle, it is hard to see why a Prime Minister would take the heat for backing his education secretary through a scandal like this only to axe him once it had started to die down. 

The politically expedient thing would surely be to throw him under the bus now. Williamson is clearly a disaster. While it is true that the exams regular Ofqual bears a hefty amount of responsibility for the chaos of the past week, the buck stops with the education secretary. 

The challenge has been apparent for five months: how on earth do you replicate a qualification and university entrance system that relies almost entirely on exams when those exams have been cancelled? 

That’s an impossible conundrum with no perfect answers, but rather than try to grapple with it, Williamson appears to have outsourced the problem to an external body, paid zero attention to what it was doing, and then acted surprised when the result was chaos.

There has been much focus on the bizarre algorithm that fixated on awarded the “right” grades even if they went to the wrong people and penalised pupils in low-performing schools to an unconscionable degree — and rightly so. But an adept education secretary would have been asking questions along the way and would have worked out long before results day last week that the system was patently unfair and not fit for purpose. He would not, as Williamson did, claim that he had no idea of the extent of the problem until it was too late as though that somehow redeemed his inaction, rather than highlighting it.

Children are due back into schools in two weeks. Parents and teachers are anxious about both safety and the quality of education that can be expected in socially distanced conditions. The country needs an education secretary who inspires trust and exudes competence. Williamson is the opposite. For as long as he remains in post, he will be an albatross around the neck of the Johnson government — a living, breathing reminder to the public not to have confidence in it. Sacking him would neutralise at least some of that anger, and show the government understands the havoc he has caused.

And yet Williamson smirks on. Why? Because of the whip. This is a man who spent his time in the Whips’ Office learning where the bodies are buried, who has dirt on Conservative backbenchers and ministers alike.

The Prime Minister of all people knows how effective that knowledge can be. Just over a year ago, Williamson helped run his campaign for Tory leader, orchestrating an intelligence network that meant Team Boris could predict exactly how each MP would vote and what might sway them. For his loyalty, Williamson was rewarded with the education brief. His lack of interest in education, questionable aptitude, and the fact that he was sacked from May’s cabinet for allegedly leaking from a National Security Council meeting didn’t matter. All that counted was that he won Johnson the leadership. 

Now, a similar story is playing out. A calculation has been made: Williamson may be an abysmal education secretary, but he is a crucial Johnson asset. The government that eight months ago won a historic landslide victory has four years before it faces another election, but its pandemic response has already hit poll ratings and the future looks a lot less certain than it did. A trusted ally who can rally the troops (by blackmail if necessary) is too valuable to lose, even for the sake of public faith in the education system.

And so Williamson stays, taunting his critics with a visual allusion to why he remains in his post. He knows that, to this government, loyalty matters more than competence. The whip is why he got his job in the first place. And it’s why he can be fairly certain he will keep it.

Read more: With five months to prepare, the A-level results fiasco is a scandal of the government’s own making

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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