Sacking of minister deepens turmoil in UK Parliament

British Prime Minister Theresa May campaigning during a visit to the Leisure Box in Brierfield, Lancashire, on April 25, 2019.
British Prime Minister Theresa May campaigning during a visit to the Leisure Box in Brierfield, Lancashire, on April 25, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

Former May loyalist insists he did not leak state secrets, but govt says matter is closed

Britain's deeply divided Parliament was plunged into further turmoil yesterday after the Defence Secretary sacked by Prime Minister Theresa May rejected suggestions that he was guilty of leaking state secrets.

However, Mrs May shut down the possibility of further investigations into the leak, with her de facto deputy telling Parliament, over protests from some members of the opposition, that the matter was closed.

Mrs May sacked Defence Minister and former chief whip Gavin Williamson on Wednesday after information from confidential discussions by the National Security Council appeared in reports in the Daily Telegraph that the government planned to engage Chinese telco Huawei to develop "non-core" parts of Britain's next-generation 5G network.

Mr Williamson has accused Mrs May of trying him in a "kangaroo court" and sworn "on his children's lives" that he did not contravene the Official Secrets Act.

However, Mrs May noted the internal investigation into the leak had provided "compelling evidence" he was responsible for the unauthorised disclosure, including his 11-minute conversation with the Telegraph reporter on the day of the council meeting.

In a letter which confirmed his dismissal, she added: "No other credible version of events to explain this leak has been identified."

Yesterday, in an urgent debate on the issue in the House of Commons, Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington said the British government would not refer the matter to the police and viewed the case as "closed".

 
 

Several MPs noted that given his protests of innocence and unprecedented sacking, Mr Williamson deserved an open investigation.

However, Mr Lidington said Mr Williamson was not being accused of a criminal offence but had lost the confidence of the Prime Minister.

No official government confirmation on using Huawei technology has been made yet, with the government saying it will come to a decision by the end of next month.

Britain is certain to create conflict with its allies if it uses technology by Huawei, the world's biggest telecoms equipment maker, which has come under intense scrutiny.

The US has warned that the use of Huawei's technology could be a backdoor for Chinese government spying. Huawei has denied involvement in such activities.

Mrs May's decisive move in firing a former loyalist who led her 2016 election campaign demonstrated that she is capable of swift and authoritative action, in contrast with her much-criticised handling of Brexit.

Professor Tony Travers, a specialist in British government at the London School of Economics and Political Science's department of government, said: "While this issue adds further to the government's difficulties, it makes Mrs May look more powerful. It is a demonstration of real, ruthless prime ministerial power - it makes her look slightly more in control than she has been for some weeks latterly."

 
 

However, it is also a sign of the fine line that Britain must tread in dealing with its allies in a post-Brexit world.

Prof Travers said: "The UK and the US don't agree on everything and there are occasions when the US and the UK don't agree on matters of defence and foreign policy.

"The UK has to balance its relationship and its broader global need for trade deals with countries including China but not only China, with its long-term, close security relationship with the US."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2019, with the headline 'Sacking of minister deepens turmoil in UK Parliament'. Print Edition | Subscribe