Gavin Williamson: The man who told Russia to 'shut up'

1 May 2019, 18:06 | Updated: 1 May 2019, 23:26

The man known as "Private Pike" has often been mocked during his time as defence secretary as he lurched from one gaffe to the next.

Gavin Alexander Williamson was born in 1976 to father Ray, a local government worker and mother Beverly, a job centre worker, who were both Labour voters.

Brought up in Scarborough, he attended Raincliffe School, a state comprehensive, and obtained a BSc in social sciences from the University of Bradford before taking up a career in manufacturing.

In 2001, he married Joanne Eland, with whom he has two children, Annabel and Grace.

That year he was elected a county councillor in North Yorkshire, serving until 2005, before becoming MP for South Staffordshire following the 2010 general election.

He served as a ministerial aide to prime minister David Cameron, remaining his eyes and ears in the Commons until the PM quit after the EU referendum.

Mr Williamson ran Ms May's successful leadership campaign in 2016 and was rewarded with the job of chief whip.

It was a role he relished as it gave him the chance to play the tough guy, introducing recalcitrant MPs to his pet tarantula, Cronus, which he kept in a glass case on his desk.

He described the arachnid as "a perfect example of an incredibly clean, ruthless killer", but it reportedly fell foul of the strict rules about animals in parliament.

After Mrs May's and the Tories' disastrous showing in the 2017 general election, he helped broker the deal with the DUP that allowed her minority administration to govern.

In November 2017, he was appointed defence secretary, after a meteoric rise which saw him enter the Cabinet without ever having served in a junior ministerial role.

Many deemed him too inexperienced to hold so high an office when he succeeded Sir Michael Fallon, who resigned over allegations of sexual harassment.

His most famous moment during his time at the MoD came in March last year, in the wake of the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury.

Mr Williamson gave a message to the chief suspects.

"Frankly, Russia should go away and should shut up," he said in remarks that were widely ridiculed in both Russia and the UK.

In July, Mr Williamson earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first minister to be heckled by his own phone at the dispatch box in the House of Commons.

Discussing Syria appeared to prompt the Siri service on his iPhone, which chirped up, saying: "I've found something on the web for Syria…"

The Sun newspaper reported in the summer that senior figures in the MoD were exasperated by his eccentric suggestions for stretching the defence budget.

According to the paper, they included mounting guns on tractors as makeshift mobile missile launchers and buying secondhand ferries to convert into beach assault craft.

Mr Williamson reportedly had to be separated from Chancellor Phillip Hammond in a row over the defence budget in December 2017.

Mr Hammond is said to have compared Mr Williamson to the hapless Dad's Army character, Private Pike, which became an unwanted nickname.

The pair clashed again last summer when the defence secretary demanded an extra £20bn for his department over the next decade, his blunt approach securing £500m for this year.

In February, Mr Williamson was accused of undermining the chancellor by announcing the deployment of an aircraft carrier to the Pacific region as Mr Hammond was preparing for trade talks with China, which Beijing cancelled.