So who is Gavin Williamson? With no military experience, never having headed a single ministry and, for most British, a completely unknown entity … until yesterday and his surprise appointment as the
UK’s Secretary of State for Defence to replace Michael Fallon, forced to resign on charges of sexual harassment.
“The United Kingdom faces rising threats in a worsening international security situation, making Defence’s work all the more important. It is imperative that we continue to take the fight to Daesh and keep Britain safe. As we leave the European Union, and forge a new Global Britain, Defence has the opportunity to deepen old friendships and contribute to building new ones around the world,” Williamson said yesterday in his first official statement.
This is the second flash promotion for the 41-year-old Conservative politician, who won his first parliamentary seat in 2010. A Social Sciences graduate from Bradford University, this former entrepreneur then served as a deputy for former Prime Minister David Cameron before being named “Chief Whip” of the House of Commons in July 2016 by Theresa May, and becoming one of her closest allies. As the Conservative party’s “chief of discipline,” Williamson was May’s eyes and ears. In other words, his main responsibility was to enforce the line dictated by the ruling party, including ensuring that parliamentarians vote the right way.
Far from having won the unanimous support of the British political class, the appointment of Williamson was nonetheless supported by the Conservatives, despite his total lack of experience in military matters. According to Conservative Bob Stewart, a former colonel in the British Army, this reshuffle will not do any harm to the military. “[Williamson] won’t know much about defence but I believe the civil service in the Ministry of Defence, the generals and the Armed Forces themselves won’t mind that too much because he’s the sort of person that will listen carefully, take advice but then make his own decision,” Stewart said in an interview with the BBC yesterday.
Preferring the carrot to the stick, Williamson seems to have a strong political sense and respect from his peers. This should be helpful, given that he’ll have to deal with the mistrust of the British military, a declining budget, aging equipment, and the continuation of external operations.