Nearly 60 years ago, John Profumo’s resignation as War Secretary was the final death knell not only for Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan but for 13 years of Conservative government.
To me, the sacking of Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson for allegedly leaking secret Cabinet discussions has a similar whiff of death about it.
We have a Prime Minister who has lost her way, a Cabinet that can’t keep secrets and widespread paralysis in Whitehall and Westminster.
The sacking of Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson for allegedly leaking secret Cabinet discussions has a similar whiff of death about it to John Profumo’s resignation
And the timing couldn’t be worse. The Conservatives were facing a massacre in today’s local government elections even before this latest fiasco.
Despite an Opposition comprising Jeremy Corbyn and his Marxist coterie, some of whom face grave charges of anti-Semitism, the Tories are ten points behind Labour in the polls.
This morning, voters will look at the Williamson shambles in horror. Crucially, the best Tory line of attack on Labour has long been national security. How could former Soviet and IRA sympathiser Corbyn ever be trusted with defence?
Now this. We are talking about the worst security leak by a Cabinet minister since the end of the Cold War.
We have a Prime Minister who has lost her way, a Cabinet that can’t keep secrets and widespread paralysis in Whitehall and Westminster
Profumo had to go because he shared a lover with a Soviet military attaché, then lied about her to the Commons. But he was never responsible — as Theresa May believes Williamson was — for leaking secret discussions.
And this wasn’t a mere Cabinet leak, of which there have been far too many during the May premiership. It was a leak from the National Security Council, the body set up in 2010 to allow intelligence chiefs to brief Cabinet ministers on national security, nuclear deterrence and strategic defence in total confidence.
Until last week, there had never been a leak from it. The confidentiality demanded was observed and respected by every member of the Council.
But details of the discussion on contracts for Britain’s 5G network and a claim that Mrs May had given the green light to the involvement of Chinese tech giant Huawei — against the advice of five senior ministers and our U.S. allies — were leaked to the Daily Telegraph. It set in motion the mother of all leak inquiries.
In all fairness, the wretched Gavin Williamson, whose political career is now surely over, denies ‘on his children’s life’ being the source of the leak.
But Mrs May — who will have been advised by Whitehall security chiefs — appears to think otherwise.
In the devastating letter in which she sacked her Defence Secretary, she refers to ‘compelling evidence suggesting your responsibility for the unauthorised disclosure’.
Of course, it should be soberly noted that Williamson had a strong disincentive to own up to being the leaker, as disclosing sensitive conversations from the National Security Council is an offence under the Official Secrets Act. Had he owned up, it would have been tantamount to admitting an offence punishable by jail.
How could former Soviet and IRA sympathiser Corbyn ever be trusted with defence?
That is why I believe there must be a criminal inquiry, followed by a court case. As I argued here on Saturday, there is no more serious offence than leaking secrets. If Williamson were found guilty, he should face a long stretch inside.
But criminal proceedings would also give him an opportunity to clear his name if his protestations proved true and he was not the source.
In the past, civil servants caught passing secret information to newspapers and others have been obliged to face the full weight of the law.
In 1984, for example, Foreign Office clerk Sarah Tisdall was prosecuted and jailed under the Official Secrets Act for leaking information to The Guardian newspaper about the arrival of U.S. cruise missiles on British soil.
Later that year, Ministry of Defence civil servant Clive Ponting passed details to the Labour MP Tam Dalyell about the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, in which 323 sailors died, during the Falklands War.
Nearly 60 years ago, John Profumo’s resignation as War Secretary was the final death knell not only for Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan but for 13 years of Conservative government
Ponting was charged under the Official Secrets Act but acquitted by a jury and subsequently resigned.
It would smack of gross double standards if a Cabinet minister were allowed to escape a similar fate.
Indeed, for a Cabinet minister to divulge secrets is especially serious. He or she not only runs the risk of handing over vital information to an enemy, but makes orderly government impossible.
Our nation’s safety depends on our top spies and military leaders being able to share secret information, which they cannot do if there is a risk that any of those party to the discussions or documents will tip off contacts or the media.
It is especially ironic that last week’s grotesque breach of security took place under Theresa May, who made her reputation as a tough Home Secretary who cultivated close links to the security services.
But the PM cannot escape her share of responsibility for this debacle. It was her choice to make Williamson her Secretary of State for Defence, even though it was clear from the start that he was hopelessly unsuited to the job.
Just months into his new post, he gave advance notice that he had ordered a Royal Navy frigate to sail through the South China Sea. Such a unwise and provocative disclosure put our Forces at risk of a response from China in a highly sensitive part of the globe.
At times, Williamson has conducted himself like a buffoon, particularly with his juvenile call for Russia to ‘go away and shut up’ in response to the Novichok poisoning in Salisbury last year.
Previously, he had taken it upon himself to suddenly announce that Russia could kill countless thousands of Britons in a cyber attack — a remark that appalled security chiefs because it blatantly breached confidence.
I warned last June that Mr Williamson’s ‘disloyalty, his incompetence and indiscretion means that dispensing with him has become a matter of national security’.
At times, Williamson has conducted himself like a buffoon, particularly with his juvenile call for Russia to ‘go away and shut up’ in response to the Novichok poisoning in Salisbury last year
I urged Mrs May to sack Williamson then. She would have saved a great deal of trouble — as well as sending a strong message to the rest of her treacherous Cabinet — had she done so.
Now she has done the right thing, following the advice of her admirable Cabinet Secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill.
There was a great deal of foolish criticism of Sir Mark floating about Westminster last night.
Some accused him of waging a personal vendetta against Williamson. Others said he had undermined the PM by setting up the inquiry without consulting her.
That is utter rubbish. Sir Mark, the most powerful civil servant in Whitehall, who doubles his role as Cabinet Secretary with that of National Security Adviser, understands the importance of keeping secrets. So, for all her faults, does Mrs May.
Unfortunately, too many ministers do not. They try to boost their political careers by sharing confidences. Such behaviour is contemptible.
Mrs May’s Government has inevitably been weakened by the Williamson scandal. But our public life is stronger.
The PM and Sir Mark Sedwill have sent the message around Westminster, loud and clear, that discretion is a non-negotiable political virtue, especially in these febrile times.
Several other ministers, if they have any sense, should be taking careful note.