Theresa May’s decision to appoint Gavin Williamson as defence secretary was ‘succession planning’, Tory MPs believe.
The PM fueled speculation she is lining up a replacement for when she leaves No10 by promoting the chief whip yesterday.
The move, despite Mr Williamson never having served as a minister or spoken from the despatch box before, drew a major backlash in the party.
A former minister told MailOnline Mrs May was effectively anointing Mr Williamson.
‘It looks very much like succession planning,’ they said. Another MP added: ‘She does seem to want him to be the next PM.’
Theresa May promoted Gavin Williamson to Defence Secretary yesterday despite him never having served as a minister or spoken from the despatch box before
Tory MPs said they believed the Prime Minister (pictured delivering a speech last night) was ‘succession planning’
Mr Williamson shakes hands with the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff Gordon Messenger as he arrives at the department today
There are mounting expectations that Mrs May will have to leave Downing Street sooner rather than later, potentially once the Brexit negotiations with the EU are concluded in 2019.
After the mini reshuffle yesterday, bookies immediately slashed the odds of Mr Williamson becoming the next Tory leader and Prime Minister following his appointment.
This morning William Hill were offering odds of 20/1 on him to become the next Conservative Party leader, he is now just 12/1.
While he is 16/1 from 33/1 to become the next Prime Minister, according to the bookmakers.
Deputy chief whip Julian Smith takes over from Mr Williamson, while former minister Esther McVey makes a return to government in Mr Smith’s old role.
But he may not have a smooth ride to the top, as his promotion immediately came under fire from senior Tories.
Health select committee chair Sarah Wollaston suggested other politicians would be ‘more experienced and suited to the role’ than Mr Williamson.
In private the response was vicious, with one female MP telling colleagues in the Commons tea room that Mr Williamson was a ‘self-serving c***’.
In his resignation statement, Sir Michael, 65, said his past behaviour had ‘fallen below the high standards we require of the Armed Forces’, adding that ‘what might have been acceptable 15, 10 years ago is clearly not acceptable now’.
Sir Michael’s sudden departure took Westminster by surprise, as he appeared to have weathered a storm over allegations he repeatedly put his hand on a journalist’s knee at dinner more than a decade ago.
But last night it emerged that Cabinet colleague Andrea Leadsom played a key role in ending his spell in government.
Julian Smith, pictured left yesterday, has been promoted from deputy chief whip to take Mr Williamson’s old job. Former minister Esther McVey (pictured right in Downing Street yesterday) is back into the government as deputy chief whip
The news was not universally welcomed by senior Tories – with health select committee chair Sarah Wollaston tweeting pointedly as the announcement was made
Tory sources said Mrs Leadsom, the Leader of the Commons, complained directly to Theresa May earlier in the week about ‘vile’ language used by Sir Michael towards her at a parliamentary meeting of a committee six years ago.
Sir Michael is said to have told Mrs Leadsom, who had complained of cold hands: ‘I know where you can put them to warm them up.’
But Mrs Leadsom is facing a backlash from some allies of Sir Michael, with one even suggesting she had been acting to save her own job. ‘Is this her way of securing her political survival? Nobody’s going to dare to sack a whistleblower, are they?’ the source told the Sun.
THE TARANTULA MOVES TO THE MoD: GAVIN WILLIAMSON IS DEFENCE SECRETARY
Williamson has enjoyed a meteoric rise from bag-carrier to David Cameron to the Ministry of Defence
Gavin Williamson has enjoyed a meteoric rise through the Tory ranks but is most famous for keeping a tarantula on his Commons desk.
Cronus was infamously used by Williamson to intimidate Tory MPs summoned to see him during tight votes.
The spider will now be moving to the Ministry of Defence as the 41-year-old married father of two succeeds Sir Michael Fallon.
Scarborough-born Williamson carried the nickname ‘baby faced assassin’ from his pre-politics career in the pottery industry, when he was known for his willingness to take tough decisions.
He succeeded Patrick Cormack as MP for South Staffordshire in 2010.
Mrs May made him Chief Whip last year as reward for joining her leadership campaign while she was an outside contender.
After calling with his support, Williamson was immediately made May’s parliamentary campaign manager and stewarded her to a rapid victory last July.
His appointment to Chief Whip was a staggering promotion for an MP who spent three years as an aide and parliamentary bag carrier for David Cameron.
As PPS to the Prime Minister, Williamson built contacts across Tory benches as their liaison with No 10.
He has two daughters with wife Joanne.
Sir Michael denies making the specific comment to Mrs Leadsom.
Mr Williamson has becomes a full member of the Cabinet for the first time – as chief whip is a role that typically attends the gathering but without the right to vote.
Technically he has not been a minister before, having been parliamentary aide to David Cameron before taking charge of the whips’ office when Mrs May became PM in July 2016.
A ministerial colleague said the move demonstrated Mrs May’s weakness.
‘It’s a bizarre appointment from somebody who’s so shell-shocked she doesn’t know which direction to turn in and so is listening to the person she just likes and trusts rather than having a view about it herself,’ they said.
One female MP is reported to have told colleagues in the Commons tea room that Mr Williamson was a ‘self-serving c***.’
However, other MPs were more supportive, with some branding the promotion ‘brilliant’ and praising Mr Williamson’s work as chief whip.
Asked about Mr Williamson’s appointment yesterday, the PM’s official spokesman said: ‘Gavin Williamson was an excellent, hard working chief whip and the Prime Minister thinks he will make an excellent defence Secretary.’
The spokesman refused to say if Mr Williamson was present during the resignation talks between Mr May and Sir Michael.
But pressed on whether the chief whip was involved in reshuffle, the spokesman replied: ‘As a matter of fact the answer is no.’
Mr Williamson denied plotting to be made defence secretary yesterday afternoon, telling his local Express & Star newspaper: ‘I was absolutely flabbergasted when the prime minister brought me in and asked me to be the secretary of state for defence.’
In a statement following his installation at the Ministry of Defence offices on Whitehall, Mr Williamson said he was ‘determined to ensure that the armed forces receive the recognition they deserve for the great work they do, including through the Armed Forces Covenant, and that they evolve both to meet the changing threats that we face and to ensure that they properly represent the modern society that they defend’.
Attention has turned to whether other members of the Cabinet can survive the Westminster misconduct storm – with Mrs May’s effective deputy Damian Green already under investigation over an alleged pass at a Tory activist.
He vehemently denies any wrongdoing, and has made clear he is ready to hand over text messages to demonstrate there was nothing untoward.
Trade minister Mark Garnier is being investigated by the Cabinet Office for a potential breach of the ministerial code after admitting referring to a female assistant as ‘sugar t*ts’ and asking her to buy sex toys for him.
Mr Williamson, the new Defence Secretary, has two daughters with wife Joanne