LONDON, (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May fired her defence minister yesterday over a leak of discussions in the National Security Council about Chinese telecoms company Huawei, the latest of her allies to be ousted from government.
The sudden dismissal of Gavin Williamson, who “strenuously” denied involvement in the leak, was another blow for May, whose own premiership hangs by a thread after her failure so far to usher Britain smoothly out of the European Union.
The firing also underlined how seriously her team treated the leak from the National Security Council, which discusses Britain’s national security, intelligence coordination and defence strategy, and involves only certain ministers from her cabinet to keep its talks as secret as possible.
That secrecy was broken last month when the Telegraph newspaper reported Britain would allow Huawei a role in building parts of its 5G network, setting London at odds with Washington over the next generation of communications technology.
Sources were forced to say that the role would be limited.
In a letter to Williamson, May wrote that an investigation into the leaks had provided “compelling evidence suggesting your responsibility for the unauthorised disclosure”.
“No other, credible version of events to explain this leak has been identified,” she added after putting the “latest information from the investigation” to Williamson earlier on Wednesday.
Williamson, who rose quickly up the ranks of the governing Conservative Party after backing May to become prime minister in 2016, denied responsibility.
“I am sorry that you feel recent leaks from the National Security Council originated in my department. I emphatically believe this was not the case.”
“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.”
May appointed international development minister Penny Mordaunt to succeed Williamson as defence secretary, and named prisons minister Rory Stewart to Mordaunt’s former role. Mordaunt will be Britain’s first woman defence minister.
May has overseen several departures in her cabinet, with many quitting rather than being pushed.
One notable exception was Boris Johnson, now one of her strongest rivals, who quit last year in protest at her plans to keep close trade ties with the European Union after Britain leaves the bloc, stirring rebellion in her party’s ranks.