Trying to justify the chaotic mess around the way A-level students have been graded, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson appeared on multiple media channels and in the pages of the Daily Telegraph to warn of the danger of ‘grade inflation’ – the risk that some students would be awarded grades beyond their actual abilities.
The far more serious risk was that talented and hard-working students – particularly those from state schools in less wealthy areas – would find their predicted results automatically downgraded by an algorithm that failed to take any account of their talent and previous performance.
This is exactly what happened, with thousands of students who had achieved excellent grades in GCSEs and in mocks, and who were highly rated by their teachers, devastated to be told that their predicted grades had been downgraded through no fault of their own. For many, this led to offers of places at top universities being cruelly withdrawn.
The general shambles and confusion surrounding this sorry affair (something of a hallmark with this government) prompts the question: how on earth could someone as incompetent and unqualified as Gavin Williamson have been appointed as Education Secretary? What kind of ‘grade inflation’ can have led to this?
The answer is that Williamson is in fact highly-qualified in all the areas needed for high office under the current government. He has an A* record in lying, underhand behaviour and ruthless manipulation.
Williamson is often described as ‘Machiavellian’ – an injustice to Machiavelli, who was formidably intelligent and had a highly-developed understanding of the affairs of state. The only quality Williamson shares with Machiavelli is his cynicism.
The former fireplace salesman climbed the greasy pole of the Conservative Party hierarchy principally by doing various types of dirty work for more senior party figures – and there has been no shortage of such work for him to do.
His first break after being elected an MP was to be appointed parliamentary private secretary to David Cameron – an influential position that Cameron’s press secretary said he used to build “a forensic knowledge of what’s going on; he puts in the work in the tea rooms and the bars. He knows everyone.”
When Cameron resigned in 2016 Williamson vowed to do all he could to stop Cameron’s nemesis, Boris Johnson, from becoming Prime Minister. Offering his services to Theresa May’s leadership campaign, he was made her campaign manager. Williamson’s reward was another position that afforded plentiful opportunities for interesting dirty work: chief whip.
He took to the role with relish, enjoying his reputation as a ruthless enforcer and even acquiring a pet tarantula to garnish this image. He named the spider Cronus, after the Greek god who castrated his father and ate his own children, telling reporters: “Cronus is a perfect example of an incredibly clean, ruthless killer.”
When May’s snap election left her without a majority in Parliament, Williamson once again made himself useful by negotiating the infamous deal with the Democratic Unionist Party. “I’m always best when no one else is willing to step forward,’ Williamson told an interviewer. ‘I had built up a level of trust with the DUP.” A billion pounds of government money committed to spending in Northern Ireland helped to grease the wheels.
As chief whip, Williamson gained an intimate knowledge of the foibles and indiscretions of his fellow Tory MPs – knowledge that he could use to his own advantage as well as to impose party discipline. When he was – to the surprise of many – appointed Defence Secretary in November 2017, there were rumours that Williamson had engineered the demise of his predecessor, Michael Fallon, after sexual harassment allegations emerged.
In his new ministerial role, Williamson was an unmitigated disaster. Quickly nicknamed ‘Private Pike’, he exasperated military chiefs with hare-brained cost-saving schemes such as turning tractors into mobile missile launchers and second-hand ferries into beach assault craft. He also proved a major embarrassment on the international stage, telling Russia to “go away and shut up”, in the manner of a petulant schoolboy, after Putin’s agents carried out a lethal attack with nerve agent in Salisbury.
His sacking came after a characteristically cynical yet cack-handed ploy backfired. Williamson was strongly suspected of leaking highly secret information on the Huawei bid to help build the UK’s 5G network. His protestations of innocence – which included swearing on his children’s lives that he was not responsible – were outweighed by compelling evidence, and the BBC’s Frank Gardner reported that “more than one concerning issue” had been uncovered regarding Williamson during the inquiry.
Most assumed this would be the end of Williamson’s ambitions. But, despite his supposed former aversion to Boris Johnson, he switched his support to the Conservative favourite and found himself suddenly back in the game of Tory politics – as Johnson’s campaign manager.
And when Johnson was picking his cabinet, Williamson’s record of ruthlessly underhand and dishonest behaviour more than made up for his obvious lack of competence, as thousands of A-level students have discovered to their cost.