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Explainer: Why a former British minister is 'swearing on his children's lives' over latest scandal

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has been fired over the latest scandal to rock the British government.

Gavin Williamson arriving for a Cabinet meeting
Gavin Williamson arriving for a Cabinet meeting
Image: Matt Dunham/PA Images

YESTERDAY, UK PRIME Minister Theresa May sacked a minister after a probe into the leak of confidential information.

The information in question was that Britain had conditionally allowed China’s Huawei to develop the UK 5G network.

The minister in question – Gavin Williamson – has strenuously denied leaking the news to a journalist.

But, even in the midst of the ongoing Brexit crisis, this affair has blown up into another high profile, embarrassing headache for May and her government. 

Here’s how and why this latest scandal has rocked Britain’s bickering government.

5G

The successor to previous iterations 3G and 4G, 5G is the latest in mobile technology that will offer faster speeds than its predecessors. 

In recent months, the development of this technology and conversations around it has become a geopolitical battleground.

The infrastructure to make it possible isn’t ready in many areas yet and the US, in particular, is aiming to prevent Chinese firms such as Huawei stealing a march on these developments. 

In recent months, the US has made clear its deep suspicions that Huawei’s technology would offer the Chinese government the ability to monitor internet traffic on 5G, making it a security risk.

It has warned that Huawei’s equipment could be manipulated by China’s government to spy on other countries and disrupt critical communications, and is urging nations to shun the company.

Chinese law obliges companies headquartered in the country to provide technical assistance to intelligence services, but Huawei has strenuously denied allegations its equipment could be used for espionage.

The US has gone as far as to warn other countries – including Ireland – of the dangers it says would be posed by allowing Huawei to construct a country’s 5G network.

Officially, the UK had echoed these concerns with a government report recently highlighting “significant” risks identified in Huawei’s engineering process.

Leaking

However, the Daily Telegraph reported on Tuesday 23 April that Prime Minister May had given the go-ahead for Huawei to build a 5G network in the country – ignoring warnings from senior ministers and the US in the process.

The paper’s report noted that May had agreed to allow Huawei to build “non-core” infrastructure such as antennas.

Cabinet meeting in Gateshead File. May and other ministers at a Cabinet meeting Source: Danny Lawson

That decision from May was outlined at a meeting earlier that day of the UK’s National Security Council. Such meetings are only attended by senior ministers and security officials who first sign the Official Secrets Act that commits them to keep conversations private or risk prosecution.

Given a report subsequently appeared in a national newspaper, a leak would have originated from an attendee at that meeting.

British media reported that Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill – the country’s most senior civil servant – gave those present an ultimatum until that Thursday afternoon to deny responsibility for the leak.

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson was one of those who came forward to do so, calling the leak “completely unacceptable”. 

Leaks from within the UK government are nothing new, such as the constant drip feed during Brexit negotiations and May’s refusal to allow her ministers take their phones into key Cabinet meetings, but this one has had a massive fallout.

That week, Sky News reported that the ongoing government inquiry into the source of the Telegraph story could become a formal criminal investigation.

Britain’s already divided government had another scandal on its hands.

‘Compelling evidence’

Just a week after the information was leaked, the Prime Minister was confident she’d found the culprit.

In a letter to Williamson yesterday advising him that he was sacked, May told him that the investigation “provides compelling evidence suggesting your responsibility for the unauthorised disclosure” from the meeting.

“No other credible version of events to explain this leak has been identified,” May wrote.

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

May told 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.

For his part, Williamson was defiant and maintained he hadn’t been the source of the leak.

In a letter responding to May, he said he was  ”sorry you felt recent leaks” originated from the defence ministry.

“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”.

He revealed that May had given him the chance to resign, but turned it down as it would have been an acceptance of guilt.

The Guardian reported that Williamson has acknowledged speaking to the Daily Telegraph’s Steven Swinford on the phone for 11 minutes on the day of the leak. However, he said that he didn’t reveal any details from the National Security Council meeting. 

He later told Sky News he’d been subject to a “witch hunt from the start” and the probe into the leak had taken place “in a kangaroo court with a summary execution”. He also said he swears on his life that he wasn’t involved in the leak. 

The former trusted May ally now finds himself back on the backbenches, and has been replaced by Penny Mordaunt. 

An official statement on the country’s commissioning of 5G infrastructure has not yet been forthcoming, but whatever happens in Brexit in the coming weeks could prove a useful distraction away from this latest scandal to affect the British government. 

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About the author:

Sean Murray

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