Gavin Williamson has been sacked from government following an investigation into the Huawei leak from a meeting of the National Security Council – replaced by Penny Mordaunt. Announcing the decision, a Downing Street spokesperson said Theresa May had asked Williamson to leave government having 'lost confidence in his ability to serve in the role of Defence Secretary':
“'The Prime Minister has this evening asked Gavin Williamson to leave the Government, having lost confidence in his ability to serve in the role of Defence Secretary and as a member of her Cabinet.
The Prime Minister’s decision has been informed by his conduct surrounding an investigation into the circumstances of the unauthorised disclosure of information from a meeting of the National Security Council.
The Prime Minister thanks all members of the National Security Council for their full cooperation and candour during the investigation and considers the matter closed.'
The decision comes after an investigation was launched after a leak about plans to allow the Chinese telecoms firm Huawei to help build the UK's 5G network made its way to The Daily Telegraph. Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill has led an inquiry into how the information made its way to the press – and was known to want to claim a scalp on the issue in order to put a stop to the recent trend of multiple leaks from government meetings. This leak was viewed as more serious than any other owing to the fact it had come from the security council – a space where sensitive intelligence matters are discussed.
As for Williamson, he strenuously denies being behind the leak (swearing on his children's lives that it was not him) – and says no members of his team were either. Friends of Williamson point the finger of blame at Sedwill – the head of the civil service – for using the investigation to settle a vendetta against Williamson. The former defence secretary has likened the investigation to being tried in a 'kangaroo court'. The main piece of evidence against Williamson appears to be an 11-minute phone conversation on the day of the leak to the journalist who wrote the story. He denies he passed on sensitive information in that conversation.
It's worth noting that relations between Downing Street and the MP have soured in recent months. Williamson was crucial in May's campaign and efforts to become Prime Minister. He was then rewarded with the role of Chief Whip and later promoted to Defence Secretary. Since taken on that role, his relationship with May has been strained. Figures in No. 10 blamed him for a recent Telegraph leak about the number of ministers against May's plan to enter Brexit talks with Labour. It follows that the same figures blamed him for the Huawei leak.
When it comes to the long term ramifications of the decision to sack him, many believed May didn't have the political capital to sack a minister – let alone a former Chief Whip, a role seen as high risk. While more details will emerge in due course, it's safe to say that Williamson could cause May problems from the backbenches.
Here's what Theresa May wrote:
This is an extremely serious matter, and a deeply disappointing one.
I am therefore concerned by the manner in which you have engaged with this investigation. It has been conducted fairly, with the full cooperation 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.
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 lead has been identified.
It is vital that I have full confidence in the members of my Cabinet and of the NSC. The gravity of this issue alone and it's ramifications for the operation of the NSC and the UK's national interest, warrants the serious steps we have taken, and an equally serious response.
It is therefore with great sadness that I have concluded that I can no longer have full confidence in you as Secretary of State for Defence and a Minister in my Cabinet and asked you to leave Her Majesty's Government.
In a letter to the Prime Minister, Gavin Williamson has responded to his sacking, and 'strenuously denied' being involved in the leak. Here's what he wrote: