2 May 2019

Gavin Williamson’s departure obscures a far more important issue

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Politics is littered with great men and women who looked at one point to be heading towards the ultimate office, before being brought low by a combination of ill luck and bad judgment. Gavin Williamson can hardly be counted among them, since there are few who considered him to be a contender in the first place. The bad judgment, however, certainly appears to apply.

Since Theresa May has lost so many cabinet ministers, it’s difficult to be sure, but Williamson’s looks like the first departure since Amber Rudd a year ago to have been unconnected with Brexit. So if the Prime Minister is searching for some sort of consolation for the latest upheaval, there’s that. But as with her EU withdrawal deal, the former defence secretary’s dismissal does say a great deal about her judgment.

This is not to suggest that she could have done anything other than sack Williamson. Once the leak inquiry was underway it had to report. And when it reported, Theresa May had no alternative but to act on its conclusions, and that meant Williamson, his protests notwithstanding, returning to the back benches. No, her mistake was not in sending Williamson packing; it was in choosing not to take his advice on the appointment of the Chinese firm Huawei to help build the UK’s 5G mobile network.

This is all a bit lost in translation now: most members of the public will make up their minds about the rights and wrongs of Williamson’s sacking based on whether they think it’s ever acceptable to leak confidential government information to the press. But the real issue that desperately needs to be debated publicly is whether there is indeed a security risk to Britain and her allies from Chinese involvement in this project.

May, true to form and history, would rather make her mind up and pursue her objectives irrespective of colleagues’ opinions. In this regard (and only in this) she resembles her only female predecessor in the job, towards the end of her considerably more successful tenure in Number 10. Had Williamson had enough? Did he genuinely believe that the information, once it was in the public domain, would trigger a government rethink on the policy? Or did he simply intend to damage his boss and – who knows? – succeed her sooner rather than later?

Surely it’s apparent to most people that the issue of Huawei is considerably more important than who is falling out with whom in this ramshackle and dysfunctional government? The firm’s appointment was arguably a political and an economic decision; it is much harder to argue that it is one of national security, except inasmuch as it may help undermine it domestically. That’s something we should be talking about.

Williamson is, we are told, ambitious. That is hardly a defining quality among Tory MPs let alone Cabinet members. As various and numerous potential candidates try each day to set themselves ahead of the pack in anticipation of a contest that may explode into reality any day, Williamson arguably threw away his best opportunity to do just that. He could have told the Prime Minister that, as defence secretary, he could not support her decision to go with Huawei. He could have informed her, in the privacy of the National Security Council, that he sided with those elements of the defence and security establishment who harboured serious concerns about the policy. And he could have resigned, choosing to put the security of the nation before his personal ambitions.

Just imagine what impact that self-sacrifice would have made. There’s nothing the Tory grassroots love more than someone who puts security above ambition (other than a candidate who puts Brexit before everything else). Compare that to other former colleagues who have stropped off because their favoured vision of a perfect Brexit wasn’t being fulfilled. Williamson would immediately have risen above the ranks. He would at last have earned the sobriquet of serious contender.

Instead he took the huff and called a reporter to bitch about the PM. Allegedly. Worse, the national conversation that needs to happen about Chinese influence is being ignored.

Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, tried to give the controversy new legs today by demanding a police inquiry into the leak. Well, it is polling day in the local elections, after all, and he does represent the opposition, so why not? But Watson would have served the nation better by demanding a debate on the 5G contract and how it’s being progressed. Unless Theresa May is really insisting that a matter of such grave importance cannot be discussed in the Commons?

Whoever eventually succeeds her as prime minister, we can only hope that it will be someone with the nerve and principle to say things to her face, not off-the-record to journalists, someone who will their risk personal position for the good of the realm. Based on yesterday’s circus, that individual is not Gavin Williamson.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and the author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.