When Gavin Williamson was sacked as Theresa May’s defence secretary for leaking information from the National Security Council, he swore his innocence “on his children’s lives”. This seems to have been the gateway drug to the lives of other people’s children, with an entire A-level generation the latest batch of youngsters to experience the Williamson effect.
Gavin is now Boris Johnson’s education secretary – because really, why not? – and his handling of the pandemic year’s A-level results has been a disasterclass even by his own standards. On the one hand, gotta feel for him. He’s had a mere five months’ notice that students would not be sitting their exams and to come up with ways of handling the situation as fairly and accessibly as possible. On the other, the upshot is such a demonstrable shambles that the prime minister has felt moved to come out and call the grade system “robust” and “dependable”. As bad as all that, then. You’ve heard of the Kitemark – any Johnson imprimatur is the guaranteed shitemark.
As individual, collective and systemic stories of injustice mount up, the government must face the reality that the one year they arguably had more control over “levelling up” than ever, they presided over a great levelling-down of the already disadvantaged. Still, welcome to the electorate, teens!
As mentioned, the Johnson administration did have a fairly significant notice period on all this, which makes it all the more excruciating that as late as this week, Williamson’s defence of his looming shitshow was: “The danger is that pupils will be overpromoted into jobs that are beyond their competence.”
Well, now. To call Gavin an ironicidal maniac doesn’t really cover it. My first reaction on reading that quote a couple of days ago was, it seems, a fairly typical one – the emission of a bloodcurdling scream at the screen on which I was reading it, followed by the mild observation: “OH MY GOD – WHERE IS YOUR CARER? WHERE IS YOUR SPAD?” What were Williamson’s aides doing in the moments after this truly deathless quote had left the lips of Gavin Actual Williamson? Once you’ve seen your secretary of state – this particular secretary of state – say that out loud, I’m afraid you do what you have to do to bury it. Chloroform the journalist, call in a bomb threat to every major broadcast network, break the emergency glass on a story about Boris Johnson being given to weekending in a Moscow chimp brothel.
Instead, this statement was allowed to make its way into the public domain – and, surely, into serious contention as quote of the year. Then again, less than 48 hours later, transport secretary and adult human Grant Shapps tweeted (and later deleted) that “4am Saturday” was actually on Sunday, so arguably there’s still everything to play for.
Speaking of lost time, we do have to come back to the question of what on earth Gavin Williamson did in the months leading up to this moment. He certainly didn’t push for a programme of Nightingale schools building, which might have helped the generation of schoolchildren Johnson’s administration has failed so comprehensively. There was certainly no success in distributing laptops to even half the 70,000 children without them, leaving them without access to remote learning.
Williamson fronted the Downing Street briefing on less than a handful of occasions. Back in April, he used that podium to address “any young people watching”. That message? “How sorry I am that you’ve had your education disrupted in this way.” As it turned out, the secretary of state would have much more disruption up his sleeve. In June, MPs from all parties erupted when he was forced to U-turn on his promise that all primary school pupils would be back in school for the end of the summer term. He insisted free school meal vouchers for the poorest children would not continue over summer, until the footballer Marcus Rashford campaigned successfully to force a reversal, at which point he preposterously opted to thank Rashford.
Somehow, then, this week’s crisis seemed to catch the education secretary on the hop. And yet, we know Gavin Williamson can take swift evasive action when he wants to. A couple of years ago, it was rumoured that Gavin might soon be the subject of an unfavourable story concerning his relationship with a colleague back during his days as a Scarborough fireplace salesman.
On that occasion, Williamson positively sprang into action, doing everything in his power to get out in front of the story. First, he suddenly gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph in which he claimed that Russia – who he had memorably previously advised to “go away and shut up” – was ready to kill “thousands and thousands and thousands “of Britons with a crippling attack on the UK’s energy supply. “This is the real threat that I believe the country is facing at the moment,” explained Gavin, with the air of a man facing the real threat of something else entirely.
When that piece of sensationalist misdirection was judged insufficient to derail the tepid-fireplace-passion story, he gave an interview to the Daily Mail which can only be described as a kiss-and-tell, revealing his “shared kisses” with the former colleague, while stressing this was all a long time ago via the immortal sign-off “I no longer sell fireplaces”.
Incredible, really, that the lives and prospects of English schoolchildren should have been entrusted to this widely acknowledged fool. And yet not incredible, in a system where vital government jobs are given as reward for services rendered, as opposed to on the basis of who would perform the most competent public service. The fear is that this is the only “levelling up” you’re going to see from Boris Johnson and his sixth-string government – yet another reminder that the only positive discrimination scheme in this country that actually works is the one that promotes idiots like Gavin Williamson into cabinet.
• Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist