The cabinet minister Oliver Dowden has defended expletive-laden texts sent by Gavin Williamson as “in the heat of the moment” after the former chief whip Wendy Morton submitted a bullying complaint against him.

Rishi Sunak is under pressure over the messages after the Sunday Times reported he had been informed by the former party chair Jake Berry of the concerns about Williamson but nonetheless gave him a cabinet position as minister without a portfolio.

The messages from Williamson, first reported by Tortoise, were sent over the course of several weeks. They include angry remonstrations about not being invited to the Queen’s funeral and warnings that “there is a price for everything”.

Both Labour and the Lib Dems have called for Sunak to sack Williamson for his behaviour. Williamson has apologised for the messages but Dowden said it was clear they were unacceptable.

Dowden said that Sunak was aware there was a “difficult relationship” with Morton, who was chief whip under Liz Truss. “I don’t think it was any secret that Gavin Williamson and other backbenchers had a difficult relationship with the chief whip,” Dowden told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme.

He said the messages had been sent at what was a “difficult time” for the Conservative party. “These were sent in the heat of the moment, expressing frustration. It was a difficult time for the party. He now accepts that he shouldn’t have done it and he regrets doing so,” Dowden said. “Thankfully we are in a better place now as a party.”

Morton is said to have cited the messages from Williamson in an email to the party on the day before Sunak was elected leader. She is also said to have informed the Cabinet Office and accused Williamson of “bullying and intimidation”.

Williamson texted Morton saying it was “very poor and sends a very clear message” that members of the privy council who were not “favoured” by Truss were being deliberately excluded and said it looked “very shit”.

“Also don’t forget I know how this works so don’t puss [sic] me about,” he wrote.

“It’s very clear how you are going to treat a number of us which is very stupid and you are showing fuck all interest in pulling things together,” one message said. “Don’t bother asking anything from me.”

Another read: “Well let’s see how many more times you fuck us all over. There is a price for everything.”

Berry said in a statement to the Sunday Times: “In compliance with protocol, in my capacity as party chairman, I informed both the new prime minister and his incoming chief of staff about the complaint on the same day.”

Williamson, on Saturday night, stated: “I, of course, regret getting frustrated about the way colleagues and I felt we were being treated. I am happy to speak with Wendy and I hope to work positively with her in the future as I have in the past.”

Dowden said no decision would be made about Williamson’s future until the investigation into his behaviour was completed. He said Sunak had not seen the full messages until last night.

“He shouldn’t have said it. He has said that he regrets doing so. He has given or has given some context, which was that this was at the time of heightened frustration. It was, remember, him as a backbencher to the chief whip. However, there is this complaints process ongoing and it was not the case that the prime minister had seen this exchange,” he told the BBC One’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme.

Asked if Sunak had confidence in Williamson, Dowden said: “Of course the prime minister continues to have confidence in Gavin Williamson.”

The shadow climate secretary, Ed Miliband, said the decision to promote Williamson called into question Sunak’s judgment.

“What it says is that Rishi Sunak was making decisions simply in his own narrow short-term interest as far as the Conservative party leadership was concerned, not the national interest, and there needs to be an urgent independent investigation into exactly what happened,” he said. “We can’t have a cover-up, we can’t have a whitewash here.”

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