Peter Walker Political correspondent
Wed, 9 November 2022 at 2:33 pm
Rishi Sunak proved unable to stand up to “a cartoon bully with a pet spider”, Keir Starmer said during PMQs as he focused on the departure of Gavin Williamson from the cabinet to castigate the prime minister for being weak and lacking principle.
Hours after Williamson stepped down as a minister after a series of allegations about bullying and abusive messages, Starmer used prime minister’s questions to condemn Sunak for having appointed Williamson to the government and then expressing “great sadness” at his departure.
“Everyone in the country knows someone like the member for South Staffordshire, a sad middle manager getting off on intimidating those beneath it,” Starmer said of Williamson.
“But everyone in the country also know someone like the prime minister, the boss who is so weak, so worried the bullies will turn on him, that he hides behind them. What message does he think it sends when, rather than take on the bullies, he lines up alongside them and thanks them for their loyalty?”
Starmer added: “If he can’t even stand up to a cartoon bully with a pet spider, if he’s too scared to face the public in an election, what chance has he got of running the country?”
Williamson, who as Theresa May’s chief whip kept a pet tarantula in his office as part of a calculated image of menace, quit the cabinet on Tuesday night after the Guardian revealed claims that he told a senior civil servant to “slit your throat” while he was defence secretary.
Earlier it emerged that Williamson sent angry and abusive messages to Wendy Morton, Liz Truss’s chief whip, after not being invited to the Queen’s funeral. Also on Tuesday, the former deputy chief whip Anne Milton claimed Williamson used “leverage” and threats to control MPs and instil a culture of fear.
Sunak told Starmer that Williamson’s behaviour had been unacceptable, adding: “And it is absolutely right that the right honourable gentleman has resigned.” He said he had not known about any of the specific allegations about Williamson before he made him a Cabinet Office minister last month.
Starmer began PMQs by referencing the Guardian story, and the prime minister’s response to Williamson’s resignation, in which Sunak expressed “great sadness” at his departure.
“The member for South Staffordshire told a civil servant to slit their throat,” Starmer began. “How does the prime minister think the victim of that bullying felt when he expressed great sadness at his resignation?”
Starmer said Williamson “spent years courting the idea he can intimidate others, blurring the lines to normalise bullying behaviour”, and he asked Sunak if he regretted the decision to make him a minister.
Sunak replied, to Labour jeers: “I obviously regret appointing someone who has had to resign in the these circumstances.” He insisted his government would be characterised by “integrity, professionalism and accountability”.
Starmer expanded on his theme, saying Sunak’s inability to take on Williamson meant he was unable to tackle other issues, such as expanding a windfall tax on energy producers, or taking on opponents within the Tory party.
“It’s a pattern with this prime minister: too weak to sack the security threat sat around the cabinet table; too weak to take part in a leadership contest after he lost the first one; too weak to stand up for working people,” the Labour leader said.
“He spent weeks flirting with the climate change deniers in his party then scuttled off to Cop at the last minute.”