As chief whip, Mr. Williamson cultivated the image of a ruthless political operator, keeping a pet tarantula he called Cronus in a glass box on his desk. His power, analysts said, stemmed from knowing where other politicians kept their skeletons, but he also threw his support to Mr. Sunak in a difficult leadership campaign.
For all his attempts to be fearsome, Mr. Williamson did not exude an air of competence as a minister. While defense secretary, he drew ridicule when he said that Russia “should go away” and “shut up.” As education secretary under Mr. Johnson, he presided over chaos in the school examination system during the coronavirus pandemic.
His promotion — as well as Ms. Braverman’s restoration to the cabinet — seemed mainly a reward for help in securing Mr. Sunak’s victory in the party’s leadership contest to succeed Ms. Truss. Some analysts said that, because Mr. Sunak’s staff ran a slick social media campaign while he was chancellor of the Exchequer, colleagues overlooked some of his political weaknesses.
“People mistook social media savvy with political savvy which is something different,” Professor Bale said. “You can run a good Instagram account if you hire a few good 20-somethings, but they are not going to help you in the bear pit of Westminster politics.”
Mr. Sunak’s biggest test comes next week when the government will outline how it intends to fill a hole in the nation’s finances estimated at £50 billion, $57 billion. Closing that shortfall, he has warned, will require unpopular tax increases and cuts in public spending programs — choices that will darken an already grim winter as Britain faces rampant inflation, rising interest rates, a looming recession and possible energy shortages.
Whether this harsh medicine revives Britain’s economy will likely determine whether the Conservatives have any chance of winning the next general election, which must take place by January 2025. For now, analysts said, Mr. Sunak still looks secure.
“With the departure of Gavin Williamson, the rest of the government looks more stable than the end of the Johnson government or the Liz Truss government,” Professor Travers said. But he said he could not rule out another leadership coup, “given the ruthlessness of the party.”