Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s spectacular U-turn over exams results puts in jeopardy his role in the Cabinet for the second time of his career.
Boris Johnson revived his position as a top minister last year after the last prime minister, Theresa May, dismissed Mr Williamson as defence secretary for allegedly leaking security discussions.
But there are already murmurings that he should again be ousted for Monday’s climb-down to base grades on teachers’ assessments in England rather than a controversial algorithm.
âWe now believe it is better to offer young people and parents certainty by moving to teacher assessed grades for both A and AS level and GCSE results.â Education Secretary @GavinWilliamson— Department for Education (@educationgovuk) August 17, 2020
After an extraordinarily difficult year for students, this news will provide certainty. pic.twitter.com/s7Dqu20ott
Conservative former minister George Freeman described the Government’s handling of grades as a “total shambles” that has “been so obviously coming for months” and suggested Mr Williamson may go in an upcoming reshuffle.
“Ultimately, the Prime Minister is in charge. And I think he will want to take firm control of this and get a grip and show that his government is taking the life chances of a generation of children seriously,” the Tory MP told Times Radio.
“I’m told the Prime Minister’s, you know, planning to reshuffle in the autumn and I dare say he wants to take everything into account.”
Labour shadow minister Louise Haigh said Mr Williamson “must resign”, while the Liberal Democrats’ education spokeswoman Layla Moran was equally blunt in her assessment.
“The point is this Government is utterly incompetent. Gavin Williamson must go,” she told BBC News.
What could have been in the Prime Ministerâs mind that led him to appoint so mere,so unreliable ,so wholly unsuitable a man to one of the most important jobs in Government #AcatastrophicmisjudgementWilliamsonMUSTGO— Nicholas Soames (@NSoames) August 17, 2020
And with students affected by the crisis also calling for his resignation, former Tory minister Nicholas Soames tried to launch a lengthy Twitter hashtag spelling out “a catastrophic misjudgement Williamson must go”.
Bookmakers put Mr Williamson 2-1 favourite as the next departure from the Cabinet, while a YouGov poll before the grades announcement suggested 75% of Britons thought the Government had handled the situation badly and 40% said he should resign.
Earlier on Monday, Downing Street insisted Mr Williamson retains the confidence of the Prime Minister.
Mr Johnson appointed Mr Williamson, a key figure in the Prime Minister’s 2019 Tory leadership campaign, to oversee England’s education system swiftly after entering Downing Street in July last year.
Three months earlier, he had been sacked as defence secretary following an inquiry into the leak of information from a National Security Council meeting about Huawei’s involvement in the 5G network.
Mr Williamson, who had been the managing director at a fireplace firm before entering Parliament as the MP for South Staffordshire in 2010, denied he was the source of the leak.
But Mrs May expelled the man who was once a member of her inner circle, having previously served as her top enforcer in Parliament as chief whip.
In that role, he was perhaps best known in Westminster for keeping a pet tarantula named Cronus in a glass box on his desk.
And after his promotion to head the Ministry of Defence he was known for a tendency to put his foot in his mouth, once prompting derision for urging Russia to “go away and shut up” after the Salisbury Novichok attack.
He was born and raised in Scarborough by Labour-supporting parents before going to a local comprehensive school and sixth-form college and studying science at the University of Bradford.
On Monday, Mr Williamson was forced to apologise and alter the system he had previously defended as “robust” until being criticised by students, headteachers and dozens of Tory MPs after almost 40% of grades were reduced from teachers’ predictions.
“I am sorry for the distress this has caused young people and their parents but hope this announcement will now provide the certainty and reassurance they deserve,” he said.
But students, while bittersweetly welcoming the upgrading of tens of thousands of grades, did not appear placated by the apology.
“This has been handled terribly and with poor preparation. It is clear that Gavin Williamson should resign,” said 18-year-old Stanley Lewis, of Edgware, north-west London, who has had doubt cast on his desire to study at Cambridge University.