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Huawei leak prompts sacking of UK defense minister Gavin Williamson

Theresa May says the matter is closed, but Labour questions whether the government can head off a police investigation.

Gavin Williamson has been fired from the British government.
Oli Scarff / AFP/Getty Images

UK Prime Minister Theresa May sacked her government's Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson on Wednesday after a leak about dealings with Chinese company Huawei.

Last week the Telegraph reported that May, in a confidential National Security Council meeting of defense chiefs and security agencies, had given the green light to the scandal-scarred Chinese telecommunications giant working on "noncore" parts of the infrastructure.

The decision to use Huawei equipment to build the UK's 5G infrastructure is far from straightforward. In February, the UK's  Government Communications Headquarters chief criticized Huawei, saying it poses security threats from the Chinese government. The US has continually warned its allies about security concerns with Huawei, and last August the Australian government banned Huawei in 5G deployments.

Speaking to Parliament on Thursday, the government said the matter is "closed" and would not refer it to the police. But Labour deputy leader Tom Watson pointed out that "the prime minister has sacked the secretary of state for Defence because she believes there is compelling evidence he has committed a crime" and questioned how the government could block a criminal investigation.  

During May's Brexit-haunted tenure as prime minister, members of her cabinet have repeatedly leaked details from meetings to the press. But because this one pertained to matters of national security, May launched an investigation to identify the culprit.

The investigation caused May to "lose confidence" in Williamson, and resulted in her asking him to leave the government, said 10 Downing Street in an official statement. "The Prime Minister's decision has been informed by his conduct surrounding an investigation into the circumstances of the unauthorised disclosure of information from a meeting of the National Security Council."

He'll be replaced by Penny Mordaunt, who previously served as International Development secretary.

Following the leak, Williamson last week put out a statement claiming he was not responsible. "Neither I nor any of my team have divulged information from the National Security Council," he said at the time.

But in a letter from May to Williamson on Wednesday, she said her investigation "provides compelling evidence suggesting your responsibility for the unauthorised disclosure."

"No other, credible version of events to explain this leak has been identified," she said.

In a followup letter back to May posted to Twitter, Williamson thanked her for the opportunity to resign, but added "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."

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Originally published May 1 at 10:05 a.m. PT.
Update May 2 at 5:04 a.m. PT: Notes Williamson's replacement.
Update May 2 at 5.30 a.m. PT: Notes discussion of possible criminal investigation.