The search for the Huawei leaker is a distraction from the real scandal

Conservative infighting over Huawei leaks is detracting from a conversation that should take place in public view.

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Who’s the mole leaking details of meetings of the National Security Council? Suspicion is swirling around the five Cabinet ministers named as speaking out against the decision to allow Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei to build parts of Britain's new 5G network: Sajid Javid, Jeremy Hunt, Gavin Williamson, Penny Mordaunt and Liam Fox.  

Whitehall’s top civil servant Mark Sedwill has been tasked with identifying the mole, who has been given the codename Gerald...sorry, wait, that’s the plot of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

In the real world, the five have scrambled to deny their involvement. Jeremy Hunt was the first out of the traps, saying that it was “utterly appalling” that discussions had leaked in this way. Several MPs are calling for a full-fledged inquiry and even for MI5 to be involved. The Opposition has got in on the act too, calling for heads to roll. 

Except, uh, hang about. It’s not like Steve Swinford was passed details of British intelligence gathering techniques or assets in the field. He was passed details of a major and consequential decision in British public policy, procurement and national security. In this case that a company, which credible reports suggest is de facto owned by the Chinese government, is being handed a contract with national security implications – something which troubles a number of Conservative MPs and should arguably trouble more. 

It’s the essence of a conversation that should take place in public view. The real similarity with Tinker Tailor isn't the five possible identities for the mole Gerald. It’s that ultimately the much vaunted intelligence product in Tinker Tailor is a cover for the real story: just as in this case the blue-on-blue infighting about the leak is a distraction from the real and important debate over Huawei. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.