What’s The Deal With The Gavin-Williamson-Huawei-Penny-Mordaunt Leaking Scandal?

Why did Theresa May sack Gavin Williamson? Who is Penny Mordaunt? And what's Huawei got to do with it? We break it down...

british politics

by Georgia Aspinall |
Updated on

Have you ever spent three years so confused by British politics that you just give up, switch off and reside yourself to a life of non-voting blissful ignorance? Yes, yes you have, because let’s be honest, at this point we basically all have. There’s no shame in it, the political world is so chaotic –soBrexit-y– right now that even the experts don’t know what’s going on half the time. It's not surprising that many of us are putting political news on permanent snooze.

Plus, it can feel exhausting trying to wade through the inevitable onslaught of articles – and exhaustive opinions – when a story like this breaks. We woke this morning with questions: what actually went down yesterday? Don't politicians leak information all the time? What's the big deal over Huawei? And should we be pleased or petrified that Penny Mordaunt is now the first ever female Defence Secretary?

Of course, for the few of us that have to keep up with this stuff for our jobs (i.e. me, unfortunately), the latest week of political turmoil has proven itself worthy to dissect and explain in terms we can all actually understand. So, get a cup of tea and settle in, we’re here to explain the whole Gavin Williamson Huawei mess so you don’t just have to nod and smile when your local office politics nerd brings it up.

Here’s the gist of yesterday's news:

Gavin Williamson has been fired from his position as Defence Secretary. A member of parliament leaked the news that Theresa May was allowing Huawei to help build the non-core of the UK’s 5G network (information that was discussed by the National Security Council) to a journalist at The Telegraph – and May has lay the blame for that at Williamson's door. The leak paints her in terrible light as many of her advisers have warned against allowing Huawei to be involved in building the network. He has been accused of leaking that information. He denies it.

But why does Huawei’s involvement in UK 5G networks matter?

Because Huawei is Chinese-owned, and all Chinese owned companies are legally obliged to cooperate with Chinese state intelligence agencies, many countries have banned the telecoms giant from being involved with government networks. After the documents leaked revealed Theresa May had gone against security service and ministerial advice about the risk to national security, the decision painted her in a terrible light, yet again.

The following people are said to have raised concerns about her approach: Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary; Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt; Gavin Williamson, (former) Defence Secretary; Liam Fox, International Trade Secretary; and Penny Mordaunt, new Defence Secretary and former International Development Secretary.

The US, Australia and New Zealand have all banned Huawei from supplying elements of their telecom’s infrastructure. ‘There's a reason others have said no,’ Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Commons foreign affairs committee told The Telegraph, ‘It is unwise to co-operate in an area of critical national infrastructure with a state that can at best be described as not always friendly.’

So, why did Theresa May want Huawei involved?

It’s not yet clear exactly what her reasoning was in going against the advice of security services and ministers. Some have speculated that it is her attempt at demonstrating the UK is free to strike their own deals in a time where her authority and the UK’s power post-Brexit is constantly being questioned. Further to this, it could be seen as an attempt to better the UK’s relationship with China, whom as such a powerful, rich country could be a worthwhile ally in such dubious economic times.

Nevertheless, the risk to national security remains, especially at a time when cyber-attacks and hacking threatens Britain at an ‘unprecedented’ scale, according to GCHQ head Jeremy Flemming. While the chief executive of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre – part of the GCHQ – said he is confident the risk to Britain can be managed, Alex Younger, head of MI6, has said Britain needs to decide how truly ‘comfortable’ it is with any Chinese-owned company being involved in developing telecoms infrastructure.

How did the information get leaked?

The Telegraph, who first broke the story, did not name a source for their information, however a quick investigation by the government has resulted in Gavin Williamson being accused. His phone was reportedly looked through, and he confirmed by his own admission he spoke to the journalist who broke the story on the day it was published.

‘No other, credible version of events to explain this leak has been identified,’ Theresa May stated in a letter to him asking him to resign.

Why is it such a big deal for Gavin Williamson to be accused?

As a relatively new Defence Secretary, and once chief Whip, it comes as a surprise given his loyalty to Theresa May so far. However, according to Laura Kunssenberg of the BBC, inner circles were suspicious of his very keen ambition to advance his own career, and privately pointed to him as the leak immediately in an investigation described as ‘Operation get Gav’.

How has Gavin Williamson responded?

He has vehemently denied his involvement and when asked to resign by Theresa May stated: 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,’ according to his letter reply to her. He was then fired from his position. He has gone on to state that he has been the victim of a ‘vendetta’ and ‘kangaroo court’, swearing on his 'children’s lives' he was not responsible for the leak. 'I have been completely and utterly screwed,' he told Sky News.

Is Gavin Williamson facing criminal investigation?

With opposition MPs now demanding an investigation into whether the Official Secrets Act was broken, some have asked the PM’s de facto deputy, David Lidington, whether or not the matter should be referred to the police. Lidington stated the matter was closed, with police involvement not necessary, but did say that ministers would ‘co-operate fully should the police themselves consider an investigation necessary.’

Labour deputy leader Tom Watson has since stated that Williamson should have the right to clear his name through criminal inquiry, stating: ‘This is about the law applying equally to everyone. We have had very high-profile civil servants going to jail for breaching the Official Secrets Act.’

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So, who is the new Defence Secretary?

With Williamson’s reign abruptly over, Theresa May has now named Penny Mordaunt, former International Development Secretary, as her new Defence Secretary. It’s a position she is considered better suited for as former minister for the armed forces. As a staunch Brexiteer, she has been extremely loyal to Theresa May despite obvious reservations about her choices over the last year, and has been tipped for the job for over two years. Click here to find out more about her.

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