Theresa May faces backlash as chief whip becomes defence secretary

Newly appointed defence secretary Gavin Williamson (left) shakes hands with permanent secretary of the Ministry of Defence Stephen Lovegrove. Picture: AFP/Getty
Newly appointed defence secretary Gavin Williamson (left) shakes hands with permanent secretary of the Ministry of Defence Stephen Lovegrove. Picture: AFP/Getty
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Theresa May is facing backlash from Conservative MPs after naming her chief whip to replace defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon, who resigned over his past conduct towards women.

Gavin Williamson, known for keeping a pet tarantula on his desk in the whip’s office, has no experience in defence and was a rank-and-file MP until last year.

He will now lead the Ministry of Defence as it faces a manpower and funding crisis, with tough decisions over which of the UK’s military capabilities to pare back.

The announcement came as Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said “the dam has burst” on a culture of harassment in politics and the “boy’s own locker room culture” had to end.

Mr Williamson ran Theresa May’s leadership campaign and was a key player in negotiating the confidence and supply deal with the Democratic Unionist Party that has kept the Prime Minister in power despite losing her majority.

But his appointment provoked an outcry among backbenchers over whom Mr Williamson maintained discipline.

Conservative MPs, speaking on condition of anonymity, spoke of their “head-in-hands despair” at the “bizarre” appointment.

“The feeling is it’s just a move that demonstrates Theresa May’s own weakness by allowing the guy who suggested to her that Fallon should go to take that job,” one MP told journalists.

And in an apparent reference to Mr Williamson’s promotion, Tory MP Sarah Wollaston tweeted: “There are times when offered a job that it would be better to advise that another would be more experienced and suited to the role.”

In a break with tradition, Downing Street said the chief whip was not involved in yesterday’s reshuffle, and denied claims from disgruntled Tory colleagues that Mr Williamson had effectively promoted himself.