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Theresa May has revealed that her sacking of Gavin Williamson as defence secretary meant that senior intelligence chiefs could once again “speak freely” without fear of their secret discussions being leaked.
In a withering account of Williamson’s conduct, the former prime minister said that officials on the National Security Council had a “concern” that an explosive leak of a meeting about Chinese telecoms firm Huawei meant their confidential advice could be made public.
Williamson, now education secretary, was dismissed from the Cabinet in May 2019 after an internal inquiry into the leak of a discussion by the NSC to grant Huawei limited access to the UK’s new 5G network.
The minister had allegedly sworn on his children’s lives that he was not responsible of the leak to the Daily Telegraph, but the inquiry led by cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill concluded there was “compelling evidence” suggesting his “responsibility for the unauthorised disclosure”.
Williamson made a dramatic return to the cabinet under Boris Johnson just months later, in a move seen as a reward for his role running Johnson’s leadership campaign.
However, HuffPost UK understands Williamson was not granted high level security clearance for key parts of his education secretary role, with other junior ministers having to take up some of his duties.
Giving evidence to parliament’s National Security Strategy Committee, May was asked by chair Margaret Beckett about the impact of the Huawei leak.
She said that the NSC – which is where secret intelligence can be shared by the heads of GCHQ, MI6 and MI5 with ministers – “didn’t take long to recover” once Williamson was gone.
“Obviously an incident like that is a shock to the system when it happens. I think there was a slight sense initially of concern, particularly obviously from those who weren’t the politicians sitting around the table, about the advice and evidence that they were giving in to the council,” she said.
“Because it had always been the case that the assumption was and it had practically been the case since it was set up that nothing leaked from the National Security Council.
“And it’s really important that nothing leaks from it, because of the nature of the discussions we are having, and you want the agencies, Ministry of Defence and others, who are advising you, to believe and feel confident that they have the freedom to give their best and genuine advice, without feeling that they have got to hold something back.
“So, a slight judder, if you like, when this incident happened, when people were concerned initially, but I think we then got back into the rhythm of people recognising that they could speak as freely as they had done previously.”
Williamson continued to protest his innocence after his sacking, claiming that a “kangaroo court” had found him guilty and that it had been “a witch hunt from the start”.
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In a further dig at Boris Johnson, May also said that it was clear that his original plan to appoint Brexit aide David Frost as the new national security adviser was flawed.
“I think it is so important to have security experience, and to have been in that world to understand it and to be able to slot in immediately and dealing with those issues. And that was my concern about the appointment of David Frost,” she said.
Ministry of Defence permanent secretary Stephen Lovegrove is due to take over as the national security adviser, with Frost instead appointed as a minister and PM’s envoy on Brexit and international policy
May – who approved Chinese investment plans for a nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point as well as agreeing to Huawei’s role before Johnson overturned her policy – praised the recent Integrated Review of defence and foreign policy for its “balanced” approach to China.
“China is not going to go away. It is a major economy, it’s a major player on the world stage… So I don’t think we can live in a world where we think we can shut China out in some sense, we have to find a way of balancing the relationship with China, which is economic on one side and then the concerns about security and human rights on the other.
“On the security front, it’s about being very clear minded and and understanding exactly what the pressures there are. What we know about China is it thinks much more long term than we tend to think in the West, and sometimes I think we do respond with more immediate responses when we need to take a very long term view as to what China’s intentions are and how we respond to those.”
Several Tory backbenchers have been furious with a failure to take more hawkish action against China, not least for its treatment of the Muslim Uighurs.
But former chancellor Philip Hammond, who also gave evidence to the committee, agreed with May that the economic power of Beijing could not be ignored.
“There is…an element of optimism in thinking that we can separate our strategic approach to China, and our trade and investment approach to China, and assuming that the Chinese will allow us, as it were an à la carte approach to the menu of relationships,” he said.
“We have a long experience of dealing with states who are strategic challengers. What we don’t have much experience of is dealing with a state that is both a strategic challenger, has fundamentally different value sets arising out of a different history and culture, and is also a major economic power.
“We’ve been rather used to dealing with strategic challenges that are economically inferior to us. This is going to require a wholly different way of thinking about the broad challenge across the economic, strategic and political fronts.”