Gavin Williamson Sacked: Defence Secretary Dismissed Over Huawei Leak

Theresa May gives marching orders after leak of confidential National Security Council meeting.

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has been sacked by Theresa May for allegedly leaking details of a National Security Council meeting on the role of a Chinese telecoms giant in Britain’s 5G network.

Huawei has been accused of being a security risk as it is too closely controlled by the Chinese government – something the company denies.

But details emerged of a highly confidential NSC meeting last month at which the prime minister was said to have controversially given the green light to Huawei being involved in the “non-core” elements of the 5G mobile network.

A string of cabinet ministers – including Williamson – insisted they were not the source of the information, first reported by the Daily Telegraph.

But following a leak inquiry ordered by Sir Mark Sedwill, who is both cabinet secretary and national security adviser, May hauled Williamson into her parliamentary office to ask her defence secretary to resign.

Williamson however remained defiant, denying again that he leaked the information and refusing to quit, prompting the PM to sack him.

It sparked calls for a criminal investigation into whether Williamson had breached the Official Secrets Act.

The Metropolitan Police said it was not yet investigating and would only launch a probe if it received information suggesting an offence had been committed.

But Downing Street said the PM considered the matter closed, raising questions about where the police may get information that could lead to an investigation.

“It’s not for the government to determine prosecutions but the prime minister has said from her point of view that she considers the matter to be closed,” May’s spokesman said.

In a letter to Williamson, the PM said there was “compelling evidence” that he was responsible for the leak and criticised his handling of the Sedwill probe after he initially tried to blame officials for briefing the media.

She was replaced in turn as international development secretary by Rory Stewart, who served as an official in Iraq during the war in 2003-4.

New Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt
New Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt
PA Ready News UK

In her letter to Williamson, once seen as an ally who was crucial as a former chief whip in building bridges with the Democratic Unionist Party that props up her government, May said: “This is an extremely serious matter, and a deeply disappointing one.”

Describing the NSC leak as “unprecedented”, May said she expected everyone connected to the leak investigation “ministers and officials alike – to comply with it fully. You undertook to do so.

“I am therefore concerned by the manner in which you have engaged with this investigation. It has been conducted fairly, with the full co-operation of other NSC attendees.

“They have all answered questions, engaged properly, provided as much information as possible to assist with the investigation, and encouraged their staff to do the same. Your conduct has not been of the same standard as others.

“In our meeting this evening, I put to you the latest information from the investigation, which provides compelling evidence suggesting your responsibility for the unauthorised disclosure.

“No other, credible version of events to explain this leak has been identified.”

Replying to the PM, Williamson “emphatically” denied being the source of the leak and appeared to criticise the inquiry.

He wrote: “I am sorry that you feel recent leaks from the National Security Council originated in my department.

“I emphatically believe this was not the case.

“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.

“I have always trusted my civil servants, military advisers and staff. I believe the assurances they have given me.”

He added: “Restoring public confidence in the NSC is an ambition we both share.

“With that in mind I hope that your decision achieves this aim rather than being seen as a temporary distraction.”

The sacking of Williamson, who is is entitled to a severance payoff of three months ministerial salary, or £17,534, sparked calls for a criminal inquiry.

Here is how the leak developed into a government inquiry:

- April 23 - A meeting of the UK’s National Security Council (NSC), the country’s top national security body, is held.

- April 24 - The Daily Telegraph newspaper reports that the Prime Minister has agreed to allow Chinese telecoms giant Huawei to help build Britain’s new 5G network despite security concerns raised by Cabinet minsters at the meeting.

- April 25 - Gavin Williamson publicly denies the is responsible.

In a statement, Williamson says neither he nor any of his team had “divulged information from the National Security Council”.

April 27 - It is reported that members of the Cabinet are expected to be summoned for interviews as part of a formal inquiry headed by Sir Mark Sedwill.

May 1 - Gavin Williamson is sacked as Defence Secretary following an inquiry into the leak of information.

Labour deputy leader Tom Watson said: “If he has leaked from the National Security Council, Gavin Williamson should be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act. And he should forgo his ministerial severance pay.”

And Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable said: “This story cannot begin and end with dismissal from office.

“What is at stake is the capacity of our security services to give advice at the highest level.

“This must now be referred to the Metropolitan Police for a thorough criminal investigation into breaches of the Official Secrets Act.”

A Met Police spokesperson said: “We’re aware of the media reports in relation to the leak and that is a matter for the National Security Council and the Cabinet Office to look at.

“At this time, we’re not carrying out an investigation.

“Clearly if at any stage we receive any information that would suggest criminal offences have been committed, then we will look into that.”

On Wednesday, foreign affairs committee chair Tom Tugendhat accused the PM of “nesting a dragon” at the heart of the UK’s communications systems.

But at prime minister’s questions, May said the government was “committed to taking decisions supported by a hard-headed, technically informed assessment of the risk”.

The US has also warned that there is no safe level of involvement by Huawei in the 5G networks branded it an “unacceptable risk” to the West.

Robert Strayer, the deputy assistant secretary for cyber at the State Department, said earlier this week US would have to reassess its intelligence-sharing arrangements.

‘Go Away And Shut Up’

When he landed the defence job, Gavin Williamson achieved the highly unusual distinction of being promoted directly into the cabinet without having held a more junior ministerial job.

The PM may now be regretting that decision to overlook his lack of experience after sacking a former close colleague who acquired the nickname Private Pike - after the hapless Dad’s Army character - during his stint in the Ministry of Defence.

The 42-year-old MP for South Staffordshire had been a vital part of Theresa May’s inner circle after being appointed as her chief whip when she took office in July 2016.

As a whip, he was best known in Westminster for keeping a pet tarantula named Cronus in a glass box on his desk, which is said to have provided added menace when dealing with errant MPs in his role as May’s enforcer.

As defence secretary, he quickly became known for a tendency to put his foot in his mouth.

At the height of the furore over the Salisbury novichok attack in March 2018, Williamson urged Russia to “go away and shut up” - prompting derision from critics.

In December the previous year, he was accused of pursuing a policy that “belongs in a Netflix series” after saying Islamist fighters should be hunted down and killed.

More recently, and perhaps more seriously, he was at the centre of a cabinet row in February as government sources blamed him for offending the Chinese and causing the cancellation of a crucial trade visit to Beijing by Chancellor Philip Hammond.

On that occasion, the then defence secretary had made a speech days before the mission in which he talked about sending a Royal Navy warship to the sensitive waters of the Indo Pacific, words that did not go down well in Beijing.

Some Westminster commentators speculated that some of the remarks that caused controversy were deliberately designed to boost his profile and his popular appeal with a view to boosting his chances of succeeding May as Tory leader.

He was also suspected being behind some of the anonymous briefings about Brexit developments with Cabinet, which were again seen as part of the jockeying for position in the Tory leadership race.

Although he has strenuously denied any involvement, Williamson’s ambitions may have been holed below the waterline with his unceremonious sacking over the Huawei leak.

Born and raised in Scarborough by Labour-supporting parents, Williamson went to a local comprehensive school and sixth form college before taking a science degree at the University of Bradford.

His background is in manufacturing and design at a pottery in Staffordshire and an architectural design company.

He was awarded a CBE in David Cameron’s resignation honours for political and public service after holding a succession of ‘bag carrier’ aide roles under the former PM.


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