LONDON — British prime minister Theresa May has sacked her defense secretary for leaking sensitive information relating to Chinese involvement in the country’s future telecommunications projects.
Defense chief Gavin Williamson – who fought off proposed cuts to the Royal Navy last year – was dismissed after allegedly telling a journalist that tech firm Huawei would participate in the rollout of the U.K.’s 5G wireless network.
The controversial decision to allow access to Huawei was made at a behind-closed-doors meeting of the U.K. National Security Council on April 23. News of the decision – which flew in the face of advice from the United States, Australia and other allies, and was opposed by several ministers – was revealed by the London-based Daily Telegraph.
Williamson denied leaking the story but was ejected from his post on Wednesday following a swift investigation by cabinet secretary and national security adviser Mark Sedwill, the U.K.’s top civil servant.
In a letter to Williamson, May said the inquiry provided “compelling evidence suggesting your responsibility for the unauthorized disclosure. No other credible version of events to explain this leak has been identified.”
But speaking to Sky News afterward, Williamson claimed the investigation had been “a witch hunt from the start” and that he was the victim of a “kangaroo court” and “summary execution”.
As defense secretary, he was an enthusiastic advocate of plans to boost the Royal Navy’s reach and effectiveness post-Brexit. In 2018 he secured an additional $2.35 billion for the cash-strapped Ministry of Defence, successfully opposed Treasury-led proposals to scrap amphibious capabilities and halted a decades-long decline in ship numbers.
In February this year, he announced plans to create two Littoral Strike Groups, one for the Indo-Pacific and the other for the Atlantic and Mediterranean region, centered on a new type of commando-carrying platform — the Future U.K. Littoral Strike Ship.
He also threatened to deploy the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth with two squadrons of embarked F-35Bs jets to the South China Sea, in a direct challenge to the Chinese government’s disputed territorial claims in the region. His comments prompted Beijing to cancel a top-level meeting with Britain’s treasury secretary.
Williamson’s replacement – and the UK’s first female defense secretary – is Penny Mordaunt, who until yesterday was secretary of state for international development and previously armed forces minister.
Named after the Leander-class frigate HMS Penelope, Mordaunt left university in 1995 with a degree in philosophy and worked for the Conservative Party and for George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns. She is a member of parliament for Portsmouth — home of one of the Royal Navy’s three base ports — and an acting sub-lieutenant in the Naval Reserve.
According to local press reports Mordaunt is one of several ministers who, like Williamson, expressed concerns over Huawei’s involvement in the 5G project.
Speaking to BBC radio today, a former head of the British Army, General Richard Dannatt, described Williamson’s downfall as a “personal tragedy” and paid tribute to his work as defense secretary.
“He got £1.8 billion extra in the budget last year and was continuing to argue the case for more resources in the spending review, and he was fighting his corner,” the retired soldier said.
“Yes, he made some mistakes, he made some gaffes and some things that he probably regretted, but on the whole, he was doing a good job.”