Sacked Williamson could prove a dangerous enemy to Theresa May
Wounded ex-minister on the backbenches will not make PM’s Brexit task any easier
Former secretary of defence Gavin Williamson outside Downing Street. Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/File Photo/Reuters
In her letter to Gavin Williamson last night, Theresa May made clear that she felt she had no choice but to sack him as defence secretary after a leak inquiry pointed to him as the culprit. But the former chief whip, who was once one of the prime minister’s closest allies, could be a dangerous, vengeful enemy on the backbenches.
Williamson on Wednesday night blamed his sacking on a vendetta against him on the part of cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill, who also serves as May’s national security adviser. Relations between Williamson and the prime minister’s inner circle are reported to have deteriorated in recent months as he was blamed for leaking cabinet discussions that were unflattering to her.
Sedwill was determined to expose whoever was responsible for leaking details of the National Security Council’s discussion of Huawei’s role in Britain’s 5G network, partly to stem the wholesale leaking from cabinet each week. According to May’s letter, Williamson’s co-operation with the leak inquiry was unsatisfactory, and compelling evidence pointed towards his guilt.
Williamson, a key organiser of May’s leadership campaign in 2016, was an effective chief whip who cultivated his Francis Urquhart image, keeping a pet tarantula on his desk. He played a central role in negotiating the confidence-and-supply agreement with the DUP and has remained close to its MPs.
Williamson’s appointment as defence secretary was unpopular with many MPs, and his performance in the role drew derision both from within parliament and in the armed services. Downing Street said on Wednesday night his sacking was necessary to protect the integrity of the National Security Council and its role in national security.
The leak about Huawei did not involve intelligence secrets but concerned a procurement decision that required the government to balance the commercial appeal (Huawei is cheap and the contract will help the UK’s trade relationship with China) with the risk of Beijing gaining a “back door” into the 5G network.
May sacked Williamson as she moves towards a compromise with Labour on customs union membership that will strain the loyalty of Conservative Brexiteers who have reluctantly backed the withdrawal agreement. The prime minister told a commons committee on Wednesday that she and Jeremy Corbyn were “trying to achieve something very similar” on customs arrangements.
After negotiations with Labour end next week, May will begin a final push to get the withdrawal agreement approved by parliament. A wounded Williamson scheming on the backbenches is unlikely to make her task any easier.