Fireplace and fury: Inside the Gavin Williamson 'leadership bid'
The defence secretary has decided that the time is right for a kiss and tell on a Scarborough fireplace saleswoman.
As the idea of Theresa May entering the departure lounge gains some traction in Westminster, one ambitious Conservative MP has acted decisively to remove an old skeleton from his closet.
New defence secretary Gavin Williamson is well-known in SW1 as a man in a hurry. Some see him as the leading ‘Mayite’ candidate to take over the Conservative leadership. May's still-influential former chief of staff Nick Timothy is said to be a fan. One Tory MP recently tweeted about "the weird plot to make Gavin Williamson Tory leader".
And now the defence secretary has decided that the time is right to confess to a fling that threatened to end his marriage 14 years ago.
It transpires that Williamson kissed another woman in 2004 when he worked for a fireplace manufacturing company in Yorkshire. He told the Daily Mail earnestly: "This incident nearly destroyed two marriages… I no longer sell fireplaces and have built a career in politics. Family will always be central to what I do and what I believe in."
The reaction in Westminster has been far from mixed, with Tory MPs, special advisers and lobby journalists generally agreeing that Williamson must be on – somewhat clumsy - manoeuvres.
"If Gavin's clearing the decks like this, then the PM really is in trouble," one former cabinet minister told the Daily Mail’s political editor Jason Groves.
Another Conservative MP occasionally spoken of as a leader-in-waiting mocked the defence secretary for his admission. Justice minister Phillip Lee tweeted sarcastically that it was time to speak out about how he had "once had a tryst with an exiled princess" when he was 14.
Former special adviser Sean Kemp spoke for many when he declared on Twitter: "I can't decide if Gavin Williamson doesn't care how obvious he's being, or if he actually thinks he's being incredibly cunning and nobody has noticed."
More scathing was the verdict of New Statesman correspondent Stephen Bush: "Something v charming about Williamson's leadership bid, which he approaches in the manner of a 14-year-old who's read a self-help dating book… Now I will initiate Stage 2: the airing of the sex scandal!"
Meanwhile one top political hack was focused on the fireplace angle.
"The most remarkable thing about this story is how sad Gavin Williamson now feels about no longer selling fireplaces," observed Sunday Times political editor Tim Shipman.