Theresa May has sacked Gavin Williamson as Secretary of State for Defence following a civil service inquiry into the leak of information that Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei will be allowed to build parts of the United Kingdom’s new 5G infrastructure to the Telegraph.
May cited both the findings of the inquiry and his behaviour during that inquiry for his sacking, which ends his frontbench career after a meteoric three-year rise, from the lowly post of bagcarrier under David Cameron in 2016, to May’s first Chief Whip and then to Defence Secretary.
The dismissal reflects poorly on both Williamson and the woman who repeatedly promoted him. While the decision was taken at a meeting of the National Security Council, to which only ministers with security clearance are invited, it did not concern operational or classified information and the decision is fundamentally a public procurement one that deserves to be debated in full view. To do as May did and conduct a mole hunt right in heart of government is a ludicrous reaction, albeit one which typifies the British state’s attitude to and treatment of whistleblowers.
The end of Williamson’s frontbench career is a small price compared to the grim and troubling fate of whistleblowers, most of whom, as journalist Nick Cohen puts it, end up “dead or on the dole”. Very few have a £75,000 salary as an MP to fall back on. But the manner and the mood music around it, in which condemnation of the fact of the leak vastly outweighed discussion of its contents, is a familiar and depressing story.
Also unlike most whistleblowers, Williamson emerges from the affair with his reputation shredded rather than enhanced, if, as May suggests, he leaked the information. (Williamson strongly denies that he did so, and has told Sky News that he swears on his children’s lives that he did not leak the story.) If you oppose a public procurement decision that runs right across your government portfolio to the point that you feel strongly enough to leak it, you should resign: obviously. What you should not do is blame your civil servants, who have no public or private means to defend themselves, and repeatedly claim you have nothing to do with it.
Both he, and the Prime Minister who put so much stock in him and powered his rise, ought to emerge as reduced figures as a result. It is a grim reality that only Williamson is likely to do so.