Theresa May has sacked Gavin Williamson as Defence Secretary despite his “strenuous” denial that he was responsible for the unprecedented leak of information from the National Security Council.
There were calls from Labour and Liberal Democrats for a criminal investigation into whether Mr Williamson had breached the Official Secrets Act. But Downing Street made clear Mrs May now considers the matter “closed”.
He learnt his fate in a half-hour face-to-face meeting in Mrs May’s House of Commons office, where she told him that a leak inquiry had found “compelling evidence” of his involvement.
Mrs May summoned him for the brutal dismissal after being briefed on the results of the inquiry shortly after Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons.
But the Staffordshire South MP hit back with a letter to the PM in which he cast doubt on the investigation conducted by Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill.
“I strenuously deny that I was in any way involved in this leak and I am confident that a thorough and formal inquiry would have vindicated my position,” wrote Mr Williamson.
Mr Williamson revealed that he rejected an offer from Mrs May to resign rather than be sacked, saying that this would have sent a signal that he accepted that either he or his team was guilty.
He was immediately replaced in his role at the head of the Ministry of Defence by International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt.
A Royal Navy reservist, she will be the UK’s first female Defence Secretary and retains the job of minister for women and equalities. Rory Stewart enters the Cabinet as new International Development Secretary.
Sir Mark’s inquiry was launched after information from secret discussions about Chinese telecoms firm Huawei’s involvement in the development of the UK’s 5G mobile network was printed in the Daily Telegraph.
Mr Williamson was listed in the Telegraph as being among a small group of ministers whose warnings about Huawei’s involvement were overruled by the Prime Minister.
In a statement, a Downing Street spokesman said: “The Prime Minister has this evening asked Gavin Williamson to leave the Government, having lost confidence in his ability to serve in the role of Defence Secretary and as a member of her Cabinet.”
While leaks from Cabinet meetings are relatively frequent, it is unprecedented for private conversations from a forum where the most senior ministers are briefed by heads of the security and intelligence agencies to reach the public.
In a letter to Mr Williamson, Mrs May said that the leak from the April 23 meeting was “an extremely serious matter and a deeply disappointing one”.
Mrs May said it was “vital for the operation of good government and for the UK’s national interest” for NSC members to be able to have “frank and detailed discussions in full confidence that the advice and analysis provided is not discussed or divulged beyond that trusted environment”.
Informing Mr Williamson of his dismissal, Mrs May said she was “concerned” at the manner in which he had engaged with Sir Mark’s inquiry.
Other NSC attendees had “all answered questions, engaged properly, provided as much information as possible to assist with the investigation, and encouraged their staff to do the same”, she said.
But she added: “Your conduct has not been of the same standard as others’.
“In our meeting this evening, I put to you the latest information from the investigation, which provides compelling evidence suggesting your responsibility for the unauthorised disclosure. No other, credible version of events to explain this leak has been identified.”
Mr Williamson later released his letter to the PM, in which he said: “I am sorry that you feel recent leaks from the National Security Council originated in my department. I emphatically believe that this was not the case.”
It is understood that Sir Mark interviewed members of the NSC as well as asking them to hand over their mobile phones so they could be checked for any trace of contacts with journalists.
Labour deputy leader Tom Watson said: “If he has leaked from the National Security Council, Gavin Williamson should be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act. And he should forgo his ministerial severance pay.”
And Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable said: “This story cannot begin and end with dismissal from office.
“What is at stake is the capacity of our security services to give advice at the highest level.
“This must now be referred to the Metropolitan Police for a thorough criminal investigation into breaches of the Official Secrets Act.”
Change UK’s defence spokesman Mike Gapes said: “This is an extraordinary development following an unprecedented leak from the National Security Council and I would now expect a criminal investigation to follow.
“This is yet another sign of a dysfunctional chaotic Conservative government. Our politics is broken, it’s time for a change.”
South Staffordshire MP Mr Williamson, 42, was a surprise appointment as Defence Secretary in November 2017, after a meteoric rise which saw him enter the Cabinet without ever having served in a junior ministerial role.
He was one of Mrs May’s closest allies after she made him chief whip on entering Downing Street in 2016. But during his time in the Cabinet, he showed increasing signs of independence from the PM and was widely regarded as preparing for a tilt at the top job when she stands down.