May’s move to clamp down on unruly ministers came the night before local elections yesterday
LONDON • The UK’s newly ousted Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson (picture) hit back at Prime Minister (PM) Theresa May after she fired him for revealing secret discussions about Huawei Technologies Co Ltd’s role in Britain.
Williamson forcibly denied he was responsible for the leak from a meeting of Britain’s National Security Council.
“I have been completely and utterly screwed,” he told Sky News. “When I spoke to the PM, she said I could either resign or be sacked, I said I would not resign because I did not leak this information, so she sacked me.”
May’s decision to remove Williamson represents an attempt to regain control over a government in disarray.
Leaking from within May’s Cabinet has become routine as her political authority has drained away. May is unpopular with Conservative members of Parliament and has promised to quit once Brexit is done. Rival contenders to replace her are already jostling for position.
“The PM needs to show she is strong and bold, this is a useful way of doing that,” Williamson told Sky.
Yet, the leaking of confidential discussions over Huawei’s roll in the UK’s 5G network — within hours of them taking place — outraged security officials and prompted ministers to write to May demanding an inquiry. They suggested the disclosure was being done to try to gain advantage in the Conservative leadership race.
The PM has grown used to leaks from Cabinet meetings on Brexit, as ministers fight to get their version of events out first. But this was a matter of national security.
Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill began an investigation, and in a meeting with Williamson on Wednesday evening, May told the defence secretary he hadn’t cooperated to “the same standard” as others.
“I put to you the latest information from the investigation, which provides compelling evidence suggesting your responsibility for the unauthorised disclosure,” May wrote in her letter sacking Williamson. “No other credible version of events to explain this leak has been identified.”
A former government chief whip famous for keeping a tarantula on his desk, Williamson denied he was responsible for the leak in his letter to May. It’s rare for ministers to be fired, and more usual for them to accept an invitation to resign.
“I appreciate you offering me the option to resign, but to resign would have been to accept that I, my civil servants, my military advisors or my staff were responsible: This was not the case,” he wrote.
A government spokesman said while the question of criminal proceedings isn’t up to the government, as far as the PM is concerned, the matter is now closed. The Telegraph reported Williamson said he’d welcome a police inquiry, because it would clear him.
May’s move to clamp down on unruly ministers came the night before local elections yesterday, in which the Tories are expected to face a drubbing for their failure to deliver Brexit.
May named Penny Mordaunt, who had been international development secretary, as Williamson’s replacement.
A Royal Navy reservist and daughter of a paratrooper, Mordaunt was the first woman to serve as armed forces minister, and is now the first female defence secretary.
Mordaunt is pro-Brexit and seen as a potential leadership candidate. She made headlines in 2014 when she used a parliamentary speech on poultry welfare laced with innuendo to settle a bet with some Navy comrades.
She has argued that British foreign aid spending should be accountable to UK officials rather than international charities, a move that adds to her popularity among grassroots Conservatives.
Rory Stewart, another potential leader who has been loyal to May and backs her Brexit deal, replaces Mordaunt as international development secretary. — Bloomberg