Johnson defends ‘heroic’ Williamson as reshuffle rumours swirl

Gavin Williamson academy order High Court

Boris Johnson has defended Gavin Williamson for doing a “heroic job” in “difficult circumstances”, amid rumours he could be replaced as education secretary.

The prime minister gave his public backing to Williamson, who is one of several cabinet ministers tipped for demotion or the sack in the rumoured upcoming reshuffle.

The education secretary has faced heavy criticism for his handling of the pandemic’s impact on schools. They include the way school closures were planned, the lack of contingency planning for exam cancellations and his department’s reticence last year to provide free school meals support in school holidays.

You must be the most ignorant, clueless and incapable Education Secretary in the UK’s history

Most recently he has been accused of endangering the health of hundreds of thousands of pupils by a group of scientists, who said the decision to proceed with a return to school without “robust mitigation measures” was “reckless”.

Referring to Williamson’s net approval rating among Conservative Party members of -53, shadow schools minister Peter Kyle asked if the prime minister could “get to his feet, put his hand on his heart, and promise the country, this House and his own supporters that the education secretary is the right person for the job and he’s up to the job”.

Johnson replied: “I think the whole House will recognise that the education secretary has done a heroic job of dealing with very difficult circumstances in which we’ve had to close schools.

“And never forget, I think the job of teachers, the job of parents up and down the land would have been made much easier if Labour and the Labour leadership in particular, had had the guts, and he’d had the guts, to say that schools are safe.”

The prime minister’s defence of his education secretary comes as Williamson faces more criticism for mixing up two black sportspeople – Marcus Rashford and Maro Itoje – in a newspaper interview.

The Evening Standard reported today that Williamson claimed to have met Rashford, who campaigned for better free school meals provision during school holidays, on a Zoom call, describing the footballer as “incredibly engaged, compassionate and charming”.

But the paper reports that Williamson’s team later clarified that he had in fact met rugby player Maro Itjoe.

Shadow justice secretary David Lammy tweeted: “This is appalling. Gavin Williamson what was it about Maro Itoje that made you mistake him for Marcus Rashford?

“You must be the most ignorant, clueless and incapable Education Secretary in the UK’s history.”

In response to the criticism, Williamson said: “Towards the end of a wide-ranging interview in which I talked about both the laptops and school meals campaigns, I conflated the issues and made a genuine mistake. We corrected this with the journalist before publication of the story.

“I have huge respect for both Marcus Rashford and Maro Itoje who run effective and inspiring campaigns.”

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