Is Gavin Williamson a disloyal rat, or is he a Tory Julian Assange, a valiant champion of open government in an age of secrecy? Is he a menace to Britain’s security, or is he the innocent victim of a toffs’ stitch-up? For an answer we may have to await a future memoir from one of the participants in this episode. But even then, the essence of a leak is deniability. The wink, the nod, the “I could not possibly say... or ask me and watch if I smile”, followed by a ring-round to substantiate.
What is clear is that Williamson was accused by the British prime minister of leaking a National Security Council discussion of the Chinese corporation Huawei’s involvement in the 5G mobile phone network, was found guilty and was sacked. This was done before he was put in a position to prove his innocence.
The reality is that the former defence secretary had become a loose cannon waiting to be fired. He was notorious in deploying his press contacts ruthlessly, not least against cabinet colleagues. These included the chancellor Philip Hammond and his deputy Liz Truss. The cannon blew up in his face.
One of the last straws may have come as a result of Theresa May’s rebuttal of his announcement that the new aircraft carrier, the Queen Elizabeth, would go to the South China Sea, a high-profile decision for the NSC, and one which led to the cancellation of Hammond’s trip to Beijing. When Williamson heard of it, I am reliably told he scrawled “[Expletive] the prime minister” on an official piece of paper. As it spread round the office, it is hard to believe such gossip did not speed its gleeful way to the cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill. There is no membrane as leaky as that between top Whitehall officials.
Not an ‘official secret’?
Even so, Sedwill’s predecessor, Gus O’Donnell must be right in telling the BBC’s Today programme that the NSC leak was not of an “official secret” and not therefore a matter for police investigation and possible prosecution. A leak of a cast list — five ministers against the prime minister — rather than information or secrets from the NSC hardly constitutes a threat to national security. Williamson’s breach was of the ministerial code.
The code states that “the principle of collective responsibility requires that ministers should be able to express their views frankly, in the expectation that they can argue freely in private while maintaining a united front when decisions have been reached”. But this is a political matter. Breaches are legion. A conversation is not an official secret or a threat to national security, a concept ludicrously overblown in the past. In the case of the code, redress is entirely in the hands of the prime minister. She can sack whoever she wants.
May must bear a share of the blame. She should never have appointed Williamson. He had no experience of departmental office, and behaved like Donald Trump in khaki. He loved chatting to journalists with links to the Conservative party, and admitted to talking to the Daily Telegraph for 11 minutes after the NSC debate with May. He must have known he was dining with the devil. He might claim to have been discussing Spurs’ chances in the cup, but pull the other one.
While the defence ministry was as appalled to be led by Williamson as the Foreign Office was by Boris Johnson, he had his uses. He was single-minded in his spats with Hammond over money, and with Sedwill over the relative priority of cyber-security and conventional weaponry. Defence chiefs love whizz-bangs and don’t do digital.
Conflict of interest
Matters cannot have been helped by Sedwill having a clear conflict of interest. He acted both as supposedly dispassionate cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, and as government national security adviser, fascinated by cyber-security. This multitasking should not have been allowed by May. Again, she was at fault.
This leaves open the question of whether the former defence secretary would have been right to publicise his loss of the argument over the Huawei contracts — yet to be finalised — and thus break collective responsibility. Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, who has called for a criminal inquiry, would probably have applauded his courage had he been a left-wing whistle-blower rather than a Tory minister.
I suspect that, come the final decision on Huawei later this year, Downing Street may come round to the Americans’ — and Williamson’s — view, that the risks involved in dealing with Huawei are too great. If Britain were to stick to its guns, it could mean having to break off digital security collaboration with the US and the Nato alliance, a major strategic choice.
May’s appeasement of China seems a hangover from David Cameron’s “kowtow diplomacy”, when he was desperate for money for his mega-projects. Or it reflects her equally desperate need for rest-of-the-world trade deals after hard Brexit.
Williamson could protest that this argument really matters. Some regard Huawei as an agent of the Chinese government. Would we all want Beijing be able, one day, to shut off our central heating or steer our driverless cars up the M1? As for the digital pundits who claim cybersecurity can be made super-safe, they know this is rubbish.
If Williamson really felt that the NSC decision endangered national security, however, he could have resigned and gone public. This is what honourable ministers have done down the ages — and half a dozen have done over Brexit already. Instead he denied he’d leaked anything and pointed out that he had scratched May’s back in the past, saying it was “a shame she didn’t recognise the fact” that he had saved her a couple of times.
But the fact that he had scratched her back shouldn’t have swayed her. There has to be such a thing as privacy in government, as in any coherent organisation. While a newspaper’s job is to delve behind the wall of secrecy in the public interest, the wall remains a bulwark of collective responsibility. It is essential to party and government discipline, if a democratic regime is to render account to the electorate. The ministerial code is the glue of loyalty. The prime minister has to guard it.
Pending the next sensation, we cannot know if May was unfair to Williamson. But what he told the Telegraph is not the issue. He had become a liability in what was already an insecure and unstable cabinet.
With Brexit facing judgement day, May is on a rollercoaster to oblivion. Ever since the 2016 referendum, she has been under pressure beyond that experienced by any prime minister in recent memory. The last thing May needs just now is a leaky wildcat roaming free. She clearly felt Williamson was one pain she could do without.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist