Last Wednesday, in a shocking announcement, the Prime Minister sacked South Staffordshire MP Gavin Williamson as Secretary for Defence.
Downing Street says Theresa May had ‘lost confidence in his ability to serve’ following a probe into the leak to the Telegraph of confidential and sensitive information discussed in a National Security Council meeting on Tuesday 23rd April, which is a breach of the Official Secrets Act – a declaration which present members are bound by whether or not they sign.
In a letter of dismissal, Mrs May said that it was ‘an extremely serious matter, and a deeply disappointing one’, before continuing:
It is vital that I have full confidence in the members of my cabinet and of the National Security Council (NCS). The gravity of this issue alone, and its 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.
As you do so, I would like to thank you for the wider contribution you have made to it over the last three years, and for your unquestionable personal commitment to the men and women of our Armed Forces.
Clearly believing that evidence points to Mr Williamson, or at the very least his department, Theresa May took impressively swift action, and dismissed him as being responsible for the ‘unauthorised disclosure of information from the National Security Council meeting on 23 April’.
Gavin Williamson, who was appointed to Secretary for Defence in 2017, has strenuously denied that he is responsible for the leak, claiming that his dismissal was unfair. Mr Williamson even went so far as to ‘swear on the lives of his children’.
In a letter of response, the former Defence Secretary said:
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 appreciate you offering me the option to resign, but to resign would have been to accept that I, my civil servants, my military advisers or my staff were responsible: this was not the case.
The NSC meeting was held regarding whether or not the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei should be allowed to build 5G infrastructure in the UK. The leak reported that Mrs May was willing to give the company the green light despite warnings from both UK officials and international allies, such as the United States advice against regarding security concerns that Chinese intelligence agencies could penetrate and exploit the network. This controversy could potentially risk intelligence-sharing arrangements between the United Kingdom and our close ally the United States, who refuse Huawei’s operations.
Conservative MP Bob Seely said: ‘Huawei cannot, by definition, be a trusted vendor. It is required by law to cooperate with Chinese secret services. It is close to, if not part of, the Chinese state.’
The opposition, Labour is leading a push for a criminal inquiry by Scotland Yard to investigate whether a criminal offence was committed by Mr Williamson; though following the dismissal, the Government consider the matter to be closed.
Some believe that if Mr Williamson is responsible for the leak, he has done a service by informing the press of Mrs May’s plans to go possibly ahead with the Chinese telecoms giant, against all concerns. Meanwhile, others have sympathy with Mr Williamson as he protests his innocence. Allies on Twitter have labelled the scandal “Operation Get Gav”.
Many are very disturbed over the leak, as it means that by breaching the confidentiality code of the meeting, a member chose to take it upon themselves to decide that sensitive information needed to be leaked in public interest, as well as the fact that it undermines the other members’ ability to speak freely in the meeting without fear of what is discussed in the NCS meeting being made public.
Whilst good governments are the most transparent, in the interest of national security transparency in information and key decision making is less applicable under circumstances where sensitive material is discussed in private to ensure the most crucial decision is made.
This story breaks at a very important time as today, 2nd May, many local governments, such as Southampton and Portsmouth, are holding City Council elections where some constituents may be put off from voting for a party which, in Government, has a security meeting breach scandal. Other constituents may be tempted to vote for the Prime Minister’s party as they might see this action by Theresa May as a show of strength and firmness.
Portsmouth North MP made first woman Defence Secretary
Portsmouth North MP Penny Mordaunt has been appointed by the Prime Minister as Secretary of State for Defence to replace Mr Williamson after his dismissal, making Mrs Mordaunt the first woman to hold such position in office.
Mrs Mordaunt is returning to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for a second time after her Junior Ministerial role of Minister of State for the Armed Forces under David Cameron, which she was also the first Woman to hold such title within the MoD.
The MP is a Royal Navy Reservist of the rank Acting Sub-Lieutenant, fitting for the city of Portsmouth which has very strong ties to the Royal Navy. The MP has also been an outspoken advocate for Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement. This makes her a very suitable choice for the Prime Minister, especially since the MP was elected to office in 2010 Mrs Mordaunt has accumulated a lot of experience under her belt, quickly rising up the ranks.
Under David Cameron, Mrs Mordaunt was appointed to a third tier position of Parliamentary Secretary for Communities and Local Government in July 2014, then of course as mentioned being promoted a second tier position of Minister of State to Minister for Armed Forces in the MoD in May 2015 and then under Theresa May Minister for Disabled People, Work and Health in June 2016 and finally to a top tier cabinet position of Secretary of State of International Development. She was also made Minister for Women and Equalities in April 2018, a position she intends to keep while acting as Defence Secretary.
Mrs Mordant’s former position of Secretary for International Development has been filled by Rory Stewart.
By building her portfolio of Parliament and Government positions, now including a second cabinet position, the frontbencher is likely going to run for the upcoming leadership challenge if – or when – Mrs May steps down for the second stage of Brexit negotiations as announced at the end of March.