British PM sacks Defence Secretary for intelligence ‘leaks’

Vidya Ram London | Updated on May 02, 2019 Published on May 02, 2019

Gavin Williamson

Penny Mordaunt   -  REUTERS

Theresa May accuses Gavin Williamson of disclosing details of top-level meeting to the press

In an episode of Yes Minister, the iconic political comedy, Sir Humphrey Appleby, the infamous civil servant, assures his often anxious colleague Bernard Wooley, concerned about a potential leak inquiry being threatened by Downing Street, that there is nothing to worry about as they are only ever set up and rarely result in anything substantive.

When such an inquiry was announced last month after the details of a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) were leaked to The Daily Telegraph, many believed it was a route to nowhere.

However, critics were quickly proven wrong when just under a week later, in a dramatic and unexpected turn of events, Prime Minister Theresa May sacked Gavin Williamson as Britain’s Defence Secretary (minister), citing “compelling evidence” that he was involved in the unauthorised disclosure to the newspaper.

In a letter to Williamson that was made public, May expressed her disappointment with his conduct, also criticising the way he had engaged with the leak inquiry, which she said other attendees had cooperated with fully.

‘Compelling evidence’

The investigation provided “compelling evidence” of Williamson’s responsibility, she said. “No other credible version of events to explain this leak has been identified.” He was replaced as Defence Secretary by Penny Mordaunt, who has become the first woman to hold that position.

The disclosure centred on an April 23 meeting of the NSC, a body bringing together ministers, officials and heads of Britain’s intelligence agencies, to discuss key issues. At the meeting, May had agreed to let Huawei — the Chinese telecom firm at the heart of a diplomatic storm in the US —get involved in building Britain’s 5G network, with restrictions placed on what it would have access to.

The meeting was meant to be confidential ahead of the formal announcement. But, on April 24, The Daily Telegraph carried a story reporting both the decision and the objections voiced by Cabinet members at the meeting.

The US has made no bones about its objections to Huawei taking up this role, telling the UK — even ahead of the decision — that such a move could jeopardise information-sharing between the two intelligence partners.

Leaks have been pervasive amid the Brexit battles, but the NSC leak is seen as being in a different league, raising concerns about national security and the integrity of the key intelligence-sharing forum. Adding to the concerns is the contest to replace May as Prime Minister. May has said she will step down for the next stage of Brexit negotiations (at a yet to determined time) and a heated battle is on to take over, including among some of those who attended the NSC meeting.

Flat denial

The drama has not stopped there. Williamson himself has flatly denied — on his children’s lives — being the source of the leak, and has accused Downing Street of mounting a witch-hunt against him. “I strenuously deny that I was in any way involved in this leak and I am confident that a thorough and formal inquiry would have vindicated my position,” he wrote to May.

The government has attempted to bring an end to the controversy. Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington told the House of Commons on Thursday that the Prime Minister considered the matter closed, and that the Cabinet Secretary (who launched the inquiry) did not consider it necessary to refer the matter to the police, though he would cooperate with any investigation if the police deemed it necessary. Williamson had not been accused of any criminal offence under the Official Secrets Act, but May had simply acted in line with the ministerial code, sacking him after losing confidence in him, he insisted.

Nevertheless, the government has faced a backlash. The Labour Party has called for a criminal inquiry. “In what world is it acceptable that the Prime Minister should be the arbiter of whether a politician she believes is guilty of criminal conduct in office should face a criminal investigation?” asked its deputy leader Tom Watson in Parliament on Thursday. Even some Conservative MPs have rounded on the Prime Minister, with one accusing her of subjecting Williamson to a ‘kangaroo court’ with no chance to properly defend himself.

Damage limitation

As the government attempts to contain the spiralling controversy, a damage limitation effort is also under way to maintain strong relations with the US, which has reiterated its stark warning.

In a briefing last week, US State Department official Rob Strayer indicated that Britain’s move could impact not just intelligence sharing or cooperation on information sharing, but all services being provided across the Atlantic. “And it’s not just the disruption, but as well the intrusion of — insertion of — cyber vulnerabilities or the use of the networks for espionage,” he said.

The controversy has certainly exposed the tensions within Britain’s vision of itself as it prepares for Brexit on October 31. Efforts by the previous David Cameron government to strengthen ties with China (including through visa rules not afforded to other non-EU countries) have continued under May, eager to forge strong trading relations with partners outside the EU ahead of Brexit. At the same time, the government has made much of a potential trade deal with the US.

Not all in the British government have been fully on board with the careful balancing act, and these tensions in the nation’s global relationships have on occasion manifested themselves publicly.

Earlier this year, Williamson faced some criticism after he announced the deployment of the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Pacific in a move that angered China, and led to the cancellation of a visit there by British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond.

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Published on May 02, 2019
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