Police have been urged to prosecute Gavin Williamson under the Official Secrets Act after Theresa May dramatically sacked her defence secretary for the Huawei leak – then immediately declared “the matter closed”.
Opposition politicians demanded a full criminal inquiry, amid incredulity that the prime minister was refusing to reveal the “compelling evidence” that pointed to his guilt, or launch any further probe.
The calls came amid an extraordinary war-of-words between Ms May and Mr Williamson, her former ally, who protested his innocence and implied he had been stitched up.
Mr Williamson revealed he had refused to resign and – in an attack on the process that ended his cabinet career – insisted “a thorough and formal inquiry would have vindicated my position”.
In conversations with allies he went further, claiming his sacking had been “politically motivated”, in an apparent swipe at Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary who carried out the leak inquiry.
Labour led calls for a police probe, deputy leader Tom Watson saying: “If he has leaked from the National Security Council, Gavin Williamson should be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act. And he should forgo his ministerial severance pay.”
Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat leader, echoed the demand, insisting: “This story cannot begin and end with dismissal from office.
“What is at stake is the capacity of our security services to give advice at the highest level. This must now be referred to the Metropolitan Police for a thorough criminal investigation”
Mr Sedwill stepped in after The Daily Telegraph revealed that a meeting of the top-secret National Security Council had agreed to give Huawei a role in building the UK’s 5G network.
The US was furious, having banned Huawei from government networks and put pressure on the UK to do the same, over fears – denied by the company – that it is a vehicle for Chinese government spies.
Facing questions immediately after the shock announcement, Ms May’s spokesman refused to discuss the evidence against Mr Williamson, beyond insisting it was “compelling”.
He also declined to discuss whether the defence secretary had broken the law, whether he should face a criminal investigation, or even whether he would receive a payoff.
The Independent understands that Mr Williamson did have a telephone conversation with the journalist who revealed the NSC decision, very soon after the meeting last Tuesday.
However, he repeatedly denied he had been source of the leak when he was interviewed by Cabinet Office officials, before a fateful 30-minute meeting with the prime minister on Wednesday.
Mr Williamson was among five cabinet ministers reported to have raised objections at the NSC meeting, putting him under suspicion.
All ministers present, and their special advisers, have been interrogated in the days since, with some ordered to hand in mobile phones to be swept for contacts with The Daily Telegraph.
The sacking came at the worst possible moment for the government, just hours before Thursday’s local elections, with the Conservatives already facing a drubbing and the loss of hundreds of seats.
Asked whether there should be a police inquiry, and if No 10 would co-operate, Ms May’s spokesman replied: “The prime minister doesn’t get involved in decisions about prosecutions.”
Faced with Mr Williamson’s firm denial of guilty, he insisted a “full an impartial investigation has been carried out”.
In a statement, the Metropolitan Police said: “At this time, we’re not carrying out an investigation. Clearly, if at any stage we receive any information that would suggest criminal offences have been committed, then we will look into that.”
In a letter to Mr Williamson, the prime minister said all others quizzed had “answered questions, engaged properly, provided as much information as possible”, adding: “Your conduct has not been of the same standard as others.”
She wrote: “I put to you the latest information from the investigation, which provides compelling evidence suggesting your responsibility for the unauthorised disclosure. No other credible version of events to explain this leak has been identified.”
In a stinging reply, Mr Williamson hit out, 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.”
He added: “I have always trusted my civil servants, military advisers and staff. I believe the assurances they have given me.
“I appreciate you offering me the option to resign, but to resign would have been to accept that I, my civil servants, my military advisers or my staff were responsible: this was not the case.”
Ms May moved quickly to appoint Penny Mordaunt, the international development secretary –a Portsmouth MP, with navy connections – as his replacement, the first woman in the post. Rory Stewart, the prisons minister, was promoted to fill her job.
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