Yes, he was wrong but let’s get this af­fair in per­spec­tive

Daily Mail - - News - By Stephen Glover

GAVIN Wil­liamson was un­doubt­edly over-pro­moted to the po­si­tion of de­fence sec­re­tary, and was guilty of drop­ping reg­u­lar clangers and mak­ing re­peated gaffes dur­ing his undis­tin­guished 18-month stint in the job.

That Theresa May gave so im­por­tant a job to a man who had never been even a ju­nior min­is­ter is a black mark against her. The fact that he had been her cam­paign man­ager when she sought to be­come Prime Min­is­ter in 2016 was no qual­i­fi­ca­tion at all.

So we can agree about his de­fi­cien­cies, and I would be as­ton­ished if he were ever a mem­ber of the Cabi­net again, even in the un­likely event of prov­ing he was not re­spon­si­ble for leak­ing to the Press.

I none­the­less be­lieve much of the re­ac­tion to his sack­ing has been hys­ter­i­cal. Wil­liamson has been ac­cused of di­vulging ‘state se­crets’ and com­mit­ting a ‘se­ri­ous crime’. This is non­sense. Labour, which has been in the fore­front of such ac­cu­sa­tions, is cyn­i­cally play­ing party pol­i­tics.

Let us as­sume, al­though he strongly de­nies it, that he did tell a Daily Tele­graph jour­nal­ist that the Prime Min­is­ter had given the green light to the Chi­nese company Huawei to sup­ply tech­nol­ogy for Bri­tain’s new 5G phone net­work de­spite op­po­si­tion from se­nior min­is­ters, and warn­ings from the United States.

If he did so, it is right that he was sacked, since the dis­cus­sions about Huawei took place at the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil (NSC), whose de­lib­er­a­tions are sup­posed to be sacro­sanct.

The 11-minute phone con­ver­sa­tion he had with Tele­graph jour­nal­ist Steven Swin­ford, the day be­fore the story ap­peared in that news­pa­per, looks like a cru­cial piece of ev­i­dence which those Tories (mostly in­vet­er­ate en­e­mies of Mrs May) yelling about a trav­esty of jus­tice can hardly ex­plain away.

One might add that, if Wil­liamson is in­deed guilty as charged, he will have a lot of ex­plain­ing one day to do to his chil­dren, on whose lives he has sworn his in­no­cence. I don’t be­lieve a de­cent man, even if in­no­cent, ever pub­licly in­vokes his chil­dren’s lives. But the most im­por­tant point is that noth­ing Wil­liamson may have told the Tele­graph – or at any rate noth­ing that ap­peared in the news­pa­per – im­per­illed na­tional se­cu­rity in the tini­est de­gree. What was re­vealed on the pa­per’s front page solely con­cerned pol­icy.

ON the one hand was the Prime Min­is­ter. She could prob­a­bly count on the sup­port of Chan­cel­lor Philip Ham­mond, who favours closer trade ties with China, and was present at the NSC meet­ing.

On the other side were sev­eral se­nior min­is­ters, in­clud­ing Wil­liamson, For­eign Sec­re­tary Jeremy Hunt, In­ter­na­tional Trade Sec­re­tary Liam Fox and Home Sec­re­tary Sa­jid Javid. All had qualms about putting a company with links to the Chi­nese govern­ment at the heart of our telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions net­work.

Weren’t they ab­so­lutely right to ex­press such doubts, the more so since they are shared by our ma­jor ally, the United States, and some of our own in­tel­li­gence ex­perts, in­clud­ing MI6 chief Alex Younger?

In many ways, the won­der was that a be­lea­guered Prime Min­is­ter, whose days must be num­bered, should have felt able to over­ride so many se­nior col­leagues, and our clos­est

in­ter­na­tional ally, in pri­ori­tis­ing the in­ter­ests of An­glo-Chi­nese com­mer­cial co­op­er­a­tion over se­cu­rity con­cerns. What­ever one’s views – and I am firmly in the anti-Huawei camp – it is surely be­yond dis­pute the Tele­graph was act­ing in the pub­lic in­ter­est by pub­li­cis­ing a dis­agree­ment about so im­por­tant a mat­ter. It did what news­pa­pers are sup­posed to do. And that re­flec­tion should make us pause be­fore we throw the book at Gavin Wil­liamson. Of course he was wrong to break the con­fi­den­tial­ity of the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil. But no state se­cret was ex­posed – only a rash de­ci­sion which could ar­guably un­der­mine the fu­ture se­cu­rity of the state.

That is why Labour’s re­sponse is so wrong-headed. I sup­pose one can’t blame it for at­tempt­ing to cap­i­talise on the deep­en­ing tribu­la­tions of a Govern­ment whose for­tunes are go­ing from bad to worse.

But the party’s deputy, Tom Wat­son, was play­ing with fire in sug­gest­ing yes­ter­day in the Com­mons and on Ra­dio 4’s To­day pro­gramme that Wil­liamson has com­mit­ted a crime, and should face a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion for pos­si­bly hav­ing bro­ken the Of­fi­cial Se­crets Act.

Such an in­quiry would not only put Wil­liamson in the dock, but the author of the Tele­graph’s story, Steven Swin­ford, would also find him­self un­der scru­tiny, as prob­a­bly would other of the pa­per’s jour­nal­ists. Note­books would be ex­am­ined, and re­porters would be asked to re­veal their sources, which of course they would be re­luc­tant to do.

Mrs May does not want such a process. Nor do the po­lice, if Metropoli­tan Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Cres­sida Dick is to be be­lieved. Yet in or­der to ex­tract po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage, Tom Wat­son ad­vo­cates a probe – which would in­evitably turn into an anti-Press witch-hunt.

HAS he taken leave of his senses? He is no great friend of the Press, hav­ing pre­pos­ter­ously de­scribed news­pa­per pub­lish­ers as a ‘lit­tle group of greedy, cruel men’ who have ‘raised two fin­gers to Leve­son [who con­ducted an in­quiry into the Press], to Par­lia­ment, to their vic­tims and to the pub­lic.’

His at­ti­tude to­wards news­pa­pers may be judged by his ac­cep­tance of £540,000 in fund­ing from tabloid-hat­ing mul­ti­mil­lion­aire Max Mosley, who has spent years at­tack­ing free­dom af­ter be­ing ex­posed for tak­ing part in an S&M orgy with pros­ti­tutes by the now de­funct News of the World.

Wat­son, it should be re­called, re­fused to re­turn any of the cash even af­ter the Mail un­cov­ered a 1960s far-Right leaflet link­ing im­mi­grants with dis­ease that de­scribed Mosley as its pub­lisher.

If the Labour deputy leader

could stand back a lit­tle, and put po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage to one side, he might con­cede that a free so­ci­ety de­pends on whis­tle-blow­ers bring­ing to light se­crets the state would pre­fer to keep un­der wraps.

Granted, Gavin Wil­liamson did not blow his whis­tle in the right way (as­sum­ing he was guilty) be­cause he broke a bond of se­crecy as a mem­ber of the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.

But the ef­fect of the Tele­graph’s story has been to open an im­por­tant de­bate about this coun­try’s fu­ture de­pen­dence on China that might have been shut down if Theresa May and Philip Ham­mond had had their way.

And Tom Wat­son would do well to re­flect, when ham­mer­ing the Tories over a sup­pos­edly grave na­tional se­cu­rity lapse, that his own Cor­bynistaled party har­bours skele­tons in its closet that could be in­fin­itely more dam­ag­ing if Labour were ever to come to power.

I am think­ing of the close con­tacts Jeremy Cor­byn and his en­tourage have forged with the odi­ous regime in Venezuela and among Mid­dle-East ter­ror­ist groups such as Ha­mas and Hezbol­lah, not to men­tion Putin’s Rus­sia. By com­par­i­son, Gavin Wil­liamson’s rev­e­la­tions were wholly in­nocu­ous.

He may have been a gafferid­den de­fence sec­re­tary. He was un­suited to the job to which Mrs May un­wisely pro­moted him. But leaked in­for­ma­tion was em­phat­i­cally in the na­tional in­ter­est.

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