LONDON—British Prime Minister Theresa May fired her defense minister on May 1 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, who has been badly damaged by 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 defense 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 unauthorized disclosure.”
“No other, credible version of events to explain this leak has been identified,” she added.
Williamson denied he was responsible, saying: “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 defense secretary, and named prisons minister Rory Stewart to Mordaunt’s former role.
Opposition parties called for a criminal investigation into the leak, with the main opposition Labour Party describing the Conservative government as chaotic and “incapable of sorting out their own crisis.”
“Conservative infighting has undermined the basic functioning of government, and has now potentially put security at risk. The police must urgently investigate,” Nia Griffiths, Labour’s defense policy chief, said in a statement after Williamson was fired.
For many in the governing Conservatives, the leak increased doubts over how much control May had over her ministers after she offered to resign if lawmakers backed the Brexit deal she reached last year with the EU.
They did not back it and she has yet to win its approval after asking parliament three times.
Last week the culture minister, Jeremy Wright, said leaks from the NSC endangered the ability of the committee, which is made up of senior ministers and hears regularly from intelligence agency bosses, to get unequivocal and frank security advice from experts.
Huawei, the world’s biggest producer of telecoms equipment, is under intense scrutiny after the United States told allies not to use its technology because of concerns it could be a vehicle for Chinese spying.
By David Millikenreut