Gavin Williamson has been sacked as education secretary after months of calls for his removal as Boris Johnson carried out a Cabinet reshuffle that also brought about the exit of Robert Buckland as justice secretary.
The Prime Minister was carrying out a long-awaited shake-up of his top team on Wednesday afternoon, with plans to put in place a “strong and united” Cabinet following the turbulence of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Williamson was one of the ministers deemed most at risk of being told to return to the backbenches particularly due to his handling of the exams fiasco during the Covid-19 crisis.
First to go, he confirmed his exit by saying “it has been a privilege to serve as education secretary since 2019”, adding that he will continue to support the Prime Minister and the Government.
His message was suggestive that he was not being offered another role as a frontbencher, but there has been no confirmation of whether he would be moved to a different role.
Next came Mr Buckland, who said it had been an “honour” to serve in the Government for the last seven years, including the last two as Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor.
“I am deeply proud of everything I have achieved. On to the next adventure,” he said.
The courts system has been under huge strain during the pandemic, but a specific reason for his departure was unclear.
There has been speculation that he could be moved to make way for Dominic Raab, a qualified lawyer, to be demoted.
The Foreign Secretary is widely tipped to be sacked from what is one of the four great offices of state because of his handling of the Afghanistan crisis, including the thousands of former Afghan staff feared to have been left behind after the Taliban takeover.
Confirmation that a reshuffle was being carried out came as Mr Johnson led Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons.
“The PM will today conduct a reshuffle to put in place a strong and united team to build back better from the pandemic,” a No 10 source said.
“Yesterday, the PM set out his plan for managing Covid during the autumn and winter.
“But the Government must also redouble our efforts to deliver on the people’s priorities.
“The PM will be appointing ministers this afternoon with a focus on uniting and levelling up the whole country.”
Following Prime Minister’s Questions, Tory Party co-chairwoman Amanda Milling was also seen going into Mr Johnson’s parliamentary office.
The scale of the reshuffle remained unclear, but it could be extensive – with Home Secretary Priti Patel also among those rumoured to be at risk of demotion or the sack.
Mr Williamson’s performance in the education brief had left him vulnerable after widespread criticism over his handling of his departmental responsibilities during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It has been a privilege to serve as Education Secretary since 2019,” he said.
“Despite the challenges of the global pandemic, I’m particularly proud of the transformational reforms I’ve led in post-16 education: in further education colleges, our skills agenda, apprenticeships and more.
“This programme will create better life opportunities for pupils and students for many years to come. I look forward to continuing to support the Prime Minister and the Government.”
During Prime Minister’s Questions, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Ms Patel sat to Mr Johnson’s left and Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg to his right – with other heavy hitters in the Cabinet not seen in the chamber.
Cabinet-level changes are expected to take place on Wednesday, but the shake-up of more junior ministerial ranks will continue on Thursday.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said Mr Johnson understands “the importance of having a diverse Cabinet” but would not guarantee that female representation around the table will be maintained at least at its current level following the reshuffle.
Former Downing Street aide Dominic Cummings has branded the shake-up the “Carrie reshuffle”, suggesting that Mrs Johnson’s allies will be rewarded.
But asked if the Prime Minister’s wife had been consulted on the reshuffle, the No 10 spokesman said: “No.”