British PM Theresa May sacks defence minister Gavin Williamson over Huawei leak

British Prime Minister Theresa May fired defence minister Gavin Williamson on Wednesday over the leak of information about Chinese telecoms company Huawei. Francesca Lynagh reports.
Williamson arrives for a Cabinet meeting in London, April 30, 2019.
Williamson arrives for a Cabinet meeting in London, April 30, 2019.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON (AFP) - British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday (May 1) sacked Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson following a probe into the leak of news that Britain had conditionally allowed China's Huawei to develop its 5G network.

"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," said a spokesman from Mrs May's Downing Street office.

The Prime Minister said in a letter to Mr Williamson that the investigation "provides compelling evidence suggesting your responsibility for the unauthorised disclosure" from the April 23 meeting of the National Security Council (NSC).

"No other credible version of events to explain this leak has been identified.

"This is an extremely serious matter and a deeply disappointing one," she added, with Mr Williamson now facing the possibility of a criminal probe.

Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable said: "This must now be referred to the Metropolitan Police for a thorough criminal investigation into breaches of the Official Secrets Act."

Downing Street later announced that Ms Penny Mordaunt, the minister for women and equalities, would replace Mr Williamson and become Britain's first female defence minister, while continuing in her current role.

Britain's already splintered government was rocked by the scandal last month over who leaked news that Mrs May was to let Huawei develop Britain's 5G network.

The bitterly disputed decision was reportedly made at the April 23 meeting of the NSC.

NSC discussions are attended only by senior ministers and security officials who first sign the Official Secrets Act that commits them to keeping conversations private or risk prosecution.

But The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that Mrs May approved granting Huawei permission to build up "non-core" elements of Britain's next-generation telecommunications network.

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The United States is adamantly opposed to Huawei's involvement because of the firm's obligation under Chinese law to help its home government gather intelligence or provide other security services when required.

Mrs May told Mr Williamson it was "vital" that members of the NSC were able to have "frank and detailed discussions in full confidence" that they would not be made public.

 
 
 
 

She added that she was "concerned by the manner in which you have engaged with this investigation", saying his conduct "has not been of the same standard" as other members of the NSC.

British media reported that Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill - the country's most senior civil servant - gave those present an ultimatum to deny responsibility for the leak.

Mr Williamson was one of the first to do so, calling it "completely unacceptable".

The 42-year-old was a trusted ally of the Prime Minister.

He was Mrs May's parliamentary campaign manager when she successfully ran to become Conservative Party leader, and was rewarded with the job of chief whip - tasked with enforcing discipline for the party in Parliament.

He was elected to Parliament only in 2010, and was best known for keeping a pet tarantula, Cronus, in a glass-sided tank on his desk.

Mrs May raised eyebrows when she appointed Mr Williamson to the key defence job in November 2017 after previous incumbent Mr Michael Fallon resigned over allegations of sexual harassment.

The move raised questions about whether Mr Williamson's whips' office had a role in preparing the dossier on ministers behind the scandal, and there were reports that Mr Williamson advised Mrs May that Mr Fallon may be facing further allegations.

"Make no mistake, Gavin Williamson wants to be prime minister. And he knows all the dirt on his colleagues," wrote Mr Tim Shipman, political editor of The Sunday Times newspaper.