In Brief

Debate: should Gavin Williamson be expelled from the cabinet over exam results chaos?

Tory MPs split over the education secretary’s future as PM offers his support

Gavin Williamson is swerving questions today over whether he has offered to resign following days of A-level grading chaos.

Speaking to BBC Breakfast, the education secretary refused to respond to speculation that he might be facing the boot after having to apologise yesterday for the “distress” caused to students. Williamson has faced a growing tide of anger after almost 40% of results predicted by teachers were downgraded by the exam regulator’s algorithm.

So should he stay in his post - or be called into the headmaster’s office?

Expulsion time: Williamson should go

If the education secretary is looking for public sympathy, the signs are not good.

Polling by YouGov found that 40% of the public believe the South Staffordshire MP should resign, compared with just 21% who said that he should remain in office. 

Three-quarters of respondents said the exam results issue had been handled badly by the government, while just 6% who said it had been handled well.

Behind closed doors, Tory MPs have also begun suggesting that Williamson has to go in order to “restore confidence”, according to The Times. One unnamed MP told the newspaper that “the problem with Gavin is he’s ineffectual. If you had someone strong they would have challenged this sooner.”

Meanwhile, Labour leader Keir Starmer says that the Conservatives’ “handling of the exam results sums them up - incompetent”. In an article for the Daily Mirror, Starmer argues that “at a time of national emergency, this is no way to run a country”.

“The Tories’ incompetence is holding Britain back from recovery,” he writes - an assessment echoed by commentators across the political spectrum.

Writing in the Daily Mail - which today depicts Boris Johnson and Williamson as slapstick comedians Laurel and Hardy - conservative political pundit Andrew Pierce says that “fiasco doesn’t begin to do it justice. Perhaps omnishambles - a word first coined in the BBC political satire The Thick of It - comes a little closer.”

The “hapless” education secretary has gone from “hubris to humiliation”, after initially “leaving his deputy [schools minister] Nick Gibb to take the flak as the chaos unfolded”, Pierce adds. 

Former education secretary David Blunkett has also weighed in with a damning article in the Daily Mail in which he says that the government has “reset the bar for incompetence”.

The exams fiasco “leaves us wondering how pupils will ever feel they can trust the system again”, Blunkett says.

Apologies from Williamson have “not quelled anger completely on the Conservative benches” either, adds Sky News.

Former minister George Freeman came “the closest yet to calling for Mr Williamson to go”, saying the “exam shambles” had raised “worrying” questions “about leadership” at the Department for Education, the broadcaster reports.

Final warning: Williamson should stay

Despite the criticism of Williamson from outside Downing Street, the prime minister has insisted that Williamson has his “confidence”.

Indeed, it looks as though Johnson, who is currently on holiday in Scotland, “will keep Gavin Williamson in his post despite mounting calls from Conservative MPs for the education secretary to resign”, The Times says.

The paper reports that “a government source said the prime minister valued loyalty, pointing out that Mr Williamson played an integral role in his leadership campaign”.

“Gavin was with the prime minister from the start,” the source added.

Former cabinet minister David Davis is also fighting in Williamson’s corner, despite having publicly criticised the government throughout the exams mayhem. 

“Different MPs have seen different priorities,” he said. “Some wanted to see us hold the line on grade inflation, others wanted us to relax it. There is not a monolith of Tory MPs calling for the head of any secretary of state.” 

Johnson has form for sticking with his closest allies despite external pressure. 

In late May, YouGov found that the public “overwhelmingly” felt senior advisor Dominic Cummings broke lockdown rules by travelling to Durham with his wife and child, as The Independent reported at the time. Yet Cummings remains in his post as the PM’s right-hand man.

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