British Prime Minister Theresa May has sacked her defence minister over a leak of discussions in the National Security Council about Chinese telecoms company Huawei, the latest of her allies to be removed from government.
Wednesday’s 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 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”.
Williamson denied he was responsible, saying: “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 Minister for Prisons 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”.
For many in the governing party, the leak increased doubts over how much control May had over her ministers after she offered to resign if MPs 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.
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.