Rishi Sunak did not know “any specific allegations” against ousted minister Sir Gavin Williamson, an ally insisted as the Prime Minister faces questions about his judgment.
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan argued Sir Gavin “acted quickly” in resigning from the Cabinet after just a fortnight in office as he was subject to claims of bullying.
She said Mr Sunak possesses the “highest degree of integrity and judgment” despite bringing the twice-sacked minister back into Government while knowing of a complaint against him.
It then emerged Sir Gavin had been accused of bullying by a former official at the Ministry of Defence and engaged in “unethical and immoral” behaviour while he was chief whip.
MPs were doubting Mr Sunak’s political judgment for bringing him back into the Cabinet, while also reappointing Suella Braverman as Home Secretary after she was forced out for breaking the ministerial code.
Ahead of his appearance at Prime Minister’s Questions, Ms Keegan insisted Mr Sunak knew only about a “disagreement” between Sir Gavin and Ms Morton when handing him a role in the Cabinet Office.
“He didn’t know about any specific allegations, he hadn’t seen any text messages or anything like that,” she told LBC radio.
Ms Keegan told BBC Breakfast: “I’ve worked with him for many years. He has integrity, he has fabulous judgment.”
She argued to Times Radio that Mr Sunak “has the highest degree of integrity and judgment”.
“I mean, the reality is you appoint people and, you know, the only thing you can do if things don’t work out or things go wrong or things come to light afterwards is act quickly,” she added.
“Gavin’s acted quickly, he’s removed the distraction.”
Sir Gavin, who was sacked in disgrace as defence secretary and education secretary in the past, quit as minister without portfolio after meeting Mr Sunak on Tuesday evening.
He said the allegations against him were “becoming a distraction for the good work this Government is doing for the British people” and was stepping back to “clear my name”.
In his response, Mr Sunak said he was accepting the resignation “with great sadness” and told Sir Gavin: “I would like to thank you for your personal support and loyalty.”
“There’s no place for bullies in Parliament,” she told BBC’s Newsnight.
She said Mr Sunak appointed Sir Gavin “with full knowledge of serious allegations about his conduct and repeatedly expressed confidence in him”.
“This is yet another example of Rishi Sunak’s poor judgment and weak leadership,” she added.
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper said: “Rishi Sunak has serious questions to answer about why he appointed Gavin Williamson, then stood by him instead of sacking him.”
Pressure on Sir Gavin – and questions about Mr Sunak’s decision-making – began with the publication of messages he sent Ms Morton, and the revelation that the Prime Minister was informed of a complaint against him when he appointed his Cabinet.
As well as the internal Tory investigation, she later referred the case to Parliament’s bullying process.
In a series of texts peppered with swear words, Sir Gavin accused Ms Morton of seeking to “punish” MPs out of favour with then-prime minister Liz Truss by excluding them from the Queen’s funeral, warning: “There is a price for everything.”
Another complaint to Parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) has reportedly been made by a former senior official who worked with Sir Gavin when he was at the Ministry of Defence.
He is alleged to have told the official to “slit your throat” and on a separate occasion told them to “jump out of the window”, according to a Guardian report.
She accused him of seeking to use an MP’s financial situation as leverage against them and sending an expletive-laden email about a female civil servant.
Ms Milton described his behaviour as “unethical and immoral” and told Channel 4: “I think he feels that he’s Francis Urquhart from House Of Cards.”
Sir Gavin is a divisive figure at Westminster, where he is viewed with suspicion by many Tory MPs because of his reputation as an inveterate plotter.
He was sacked first by Theresa May as defence secretary in 2019 for leaking details of a National Security Council meeting, and then by Boris Johnson as education secretary over the Covid-19 A-levels debacle.