A leak that cost the British Defence Secretary his job

Gavin Williamson.APMatt Dunham  

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 was nothing to worry about as they were only ever set up and rarely resulted in anything substantive.

When such an inquiry was announced last month after details of a meeting of the National Security Council 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, Prime Minister Theresa May sacked Gavin Williamson as Britain’s Defence Secretary (Minister), citing “compelling evidence,” that he was involved in the leak.

In a letter to Mr. Williamson, the Prime Minister expressed her disappointment with his conduct. The investigation provided “compelling evidence” of Mr. 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.

Security meeting

The disclosure centred on an April 23 meeting of the U.K.’s National Security Council to discuss top level intelligence matter. In the meeting, the Prime Minister agreed to let Huawei, the Chinese telecom firm at the heart of a diplomatic storm in the U.S., to be involved in building Britain’s 5G network, with restrictions placed on what it would have access to.

The meeting was meant to be confidential, but on April 24, The Daily Telegraph carried a story reporting both the decision and the objections voiced by Cabinet members during the meeting.

The U.S. has made no bones about expressing its objections to Huawei taking up this role, telling the U.K. that such a move could jeopardise intelligence sharing between the two partners.

Leaks have been pervasive amid the Brexit battles, but the leak from the NSC has been 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 Ms. May as Prime Minister. She has said she will step down for the next stage of Brexit negotiations.

The drama has not stopped there. Mr. Williamson himself has flatly denied being the source of the leak — on his children’s lives — 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 in a letter to Ms. 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 police.

Ministerial code

Mr. Williamson had not been accused of any criminal offence under the Official Secrets Act, but the Prime minister 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 Mr. Williamson to a “kangaroo court” with no chance to properly defend himself.