Gavin Williamson has been branded ‘ignorant, clueless and incapable’ after confusing two black sports stars – but he’s by no means the only minister to face questions
“Ignorant, clueless and incapable” was Labour MP David Lammy’s swift denunciation of Gavin Williamson’s latest gaffe. You can only imagine what the education secretary’s aides said behind closed doors after they’d been forced to clarify to the London Evening Standard that he’d apparently confused two black sports stars, Marcus Rashford and Maro Itoje.
Williamson isn’t allowed out much. He hasn’t for example done an interview with Channel 4 News in the two years and more since his appointment. After his latest faux pas, you can understand why.
It’s little wonder he leads the list of cabinet ministers being shown the door in a reshuffle which could come as early as today. A lacklustre response to the pandemic (that’s perhaps putting it kindly), the exams U-turn (humiliating for him, exasperating for the nation’s children, parents and teachers) – and now this. He claimed this summer to have forgotten his A-level grades, but no one in Downing Street is giving him an A* for cabinet governance.
But he’s by no means the only minister to wear the dunce’s cap.
MPs and civil servants alike are disowning the foreign secretary Dominic Raab, who was previously seen as a safe pair of hands. Likewise, the home secretary Priti Patel, once a darling of Conservative grassroots, sparked demotion rumours after keeping a low profile in recent days.
She had benefitted from the prime minister’s vow to “stick with Prit” in the aftermath of the bullying scandal, but is now in deep water for failing to deliver on her promises to limit the number of migrants arriving on Britain’s shores.
As ConservativeHome’s Paul Goodman and Henry Hill reflected a few days ago when they published their latest cabinet league table, based on surveying party members: “Last month, she was 10th from bottom on 26 per cent. This month, she is eight from bottom on 18 per cent. As recently as May, she was among the top members of the table: sixth from top on 64 per cent. You will have your own view on the reasons for her fall. Ours is: channel boats.”
That same table has international trade secretary Liz Truss on top, with chancellor Rishi Sunak, defence secretary Ben Wallace (once tipped for demotion), and health secretary Sajid Javid also scoring highly.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi’s cool handling of the Covid fightback, and business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng’s assured media performances have likewise impressed Tory MPs, while home office minister Victoria Atkins is tipped by colleagues for promotion, despite rumours No 10 isn’t keen.
But in truth, if Boris Johnson plays ministerial Top Trumps in the next few days, his hand appears relatively weak.
A senior conservative I met recently confessed that, asked by a grandee to single out stellar MPs, he momentarily couldn’t come up with a single name.
Where once the brightest and best beat a path to Parliament’s door, now the talented and ambitious are snapped up by business or big tech. How much more rewarding to move fast and break things – and get paid a small fortune in the process – rather than navigate the slings and arrows of political fortune, and an often hostile media.
So should any of us be surprised when Tory old-timers complain that, compared to the big beasts of the past, some of Johnson’s cabinet colleagues feel like nodding dogs, struggling to master independent thought or anything approaching a political vision?
In some ways the comparison is unfair. After all, the likes of William Hague, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – respected, even revered now – all got a terrible press when they led their respective parties. Nothing in their time in office became them like the leaving of it.
But Johnson’s talent problem surely goes deeper than media ennui with a party that’s been in power more than a decade.
As he shuffles his pack, friend and foe alike fear he’s got far too many jokers for comfort.
The political challenges ahead are enormous. Social care is far from fixed; and the government has barely got going on climate change. He needs a few aces – and so do we.
Cathy Newman presents Channel 4 News, weekdays, at 7pm