(Bloomberg) -- U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May named Gavin Williamson as her new defense minister, replacing Michael Fallon, who resigned late Wednesday following allegations of sexual harassment.
The fiercely loyal 41-year-old has been a trusted adviser to both May and her predecessor David Cameron. For three years, he was Cameron’s parliamentary private secretary, responsible for managing his relationship with lawmakers. He campaigned against Brexit in last year’s referendum. When May became prime minister last year, she appointed Williamson chief whip, in charge of party discipline. After this year’s election, he negotiated the deal with Northen Ireland’s Democratic Unionists that allowed May to stay in office.
His promotion is a characteristically cautious move for May, avoiding a full reshuffle of her cabinet. It also reflects her constrained position. She has been urged to clear out older ministers and promote younger talent, but reshuffles create enemies, something that May can ill afford, especially three weeks before the Budget and with the European Union withdrawal bill under scrutiny.
“Appointing Williamson as defense secretary is not a very well-judged decision; there are plenty of people in the Tory Party who are far more qualified for the job," said Matt Beech, Director of the Centre for British Politics at the University of Hull. "It shows the extent to which she is torn between two warring factions in the government -- the Brexiteers and Remainers -- so she is forced to pick from loyal lieutenants."
Richard Dannatt, former head of the British army and crossbench member of the upper House of Lords, agreed. "This appointment by Theresa May is essentially a political one," he told the BBC. It’s all about bolstering her position within the cabinet."
May named Williamson’s current deputy, Julian Smith, as his replacement as chief whip. Though a lower profile job than defence secretary, it is in many ways more important to May, who has to get a series of Brexit bills through a parliament where she doesn’t have a majority.
Still, the prime minister could find her hand is forced if the harassment scandal forces more resignations. Her deputy, Damian Green, has denied inappropriate behavior, but allegations about him are being investigated by May’s most senior official.
On Instagram, the picture-sharing social media site, Williamson favors pictures of his tarantula, Cronus, his cocker spaniel, Bessie and his black cat, Tabitha. He joked about his job as a disciplinarian when he addressed rank and file Tories at the party conference in October: “We take a carrot and stick approach,” he said. “Personally I don’t much like the stick, but it is amazing what can be achieved with a sharpened carrot.”
One influential Tory backbencher, Sarah Wollaston, indicated on Twitter she didn’t approve of Williamson’s appointment. “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,” wrote Wollaston, who chairs Parliament’s Health Committee.
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