Police are unlikely to open a criminal investigation into the leak of secret information from the National Security Council unless the case is referred to them by the Government, the country’s most senior officer has indicated.
Opposition parties are demanding a police inquiry following the dramatic sacking of Gavin Williamson as Defence Secretary on Wednesday.
And Mr Williamson himself has said he would welcome a police probe, which he believes would “absolutely exonerate” him of leaking details of the NSC discussion on Chinese telecoms giant Huawei’s potential involvement in building the UK’s new 5G network.
Theresa May’s effective deputy David Lidington told MPs the Government will “co-operate fully” with any police investigation into a possible breach of the Official Secrets Act.
But he made clear that the Government had no intention of referring the case to Scotland Yard, telling the House of Commons that the Prime Minister regarded it as “closed”.
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick indicated that it would be for ministers to trigger an inquiry.
“If the Cabinet Office were to send us a referral at any point that relates to apparent official secrets or leaks we would assess that,” said Ms Dick.
A formal decision on launching an investigation would be taken by the Met’s deputy commissioner, she said. But she added: “That is hypothetical because we have not had any referral from the Cabinet Office.
“We will look at any complaint we may get and if there is relevant evidence we will always look at it.”
Labour deputy leader Tom Watson said that Mr Williamson’s case cannot be closed while he stands accused of criminal behaviour of which he protests his innocence.
“In what world is it acceptable that the Prime Minister should be the arbiter of whether a politician she believes is guilty of criminal conduct in office should face a criminal investigation?” he asked the Commons.
In what world is it acceptable that the Prime Minister should be the arbiter of whether a politician she believes is guilty of criminal conduct in office should face a criminal investigation?
My Urgent Question to the Prime Minister… pic.twitter.com/nvY18i3dV9
— Tom Watson (@tom_watson) May 2, 2019
Mr Watson also called for Mr Williamson to forfeit the £17,000 severance payment to which he is entitled on leaving the Government.
A string of senior Conservative MPs demanded a full investigation to establish blame, with some describing the leak inquiry by Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill as a “kangaroo court”.
Former minister Sir Desmond Swayne said Mr Williamson had effectively been branded a liar, telling MPs: “Natural justice requires that the evidence is produced so that his reputation can be salvaged or utterly destroyed.”
And Wellingborough MP Peter Bone said: “The former secretary of state has said that, on the lives of his children, he did not leak the information.
“This seems to have been a kangaroo court reaching a decision in secret which we have no evidence to base any decision on.”
Mr Williamson’s abrupt firing as head of the Ministry of Defence sent shockwaves around Westminster on Wednesday after Mrs May said the inquiry had found “compelling evidence” suggesting he was to blame.
He was immediately replaced by the UK’s first woman Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt, whose position of International Development Secretary was filled by prisons minister Rory Stewart.
The PM also said she was “concerned” by the the way the former defence secretary engaged with Sir Mark’s inquiry.
But Mr Williamson denied he or anyone on his team was behind the leak and insisted he had fully complied with the probe.
“I volunteered everything up. I couldn’t have volunteered more information on the whole thing,” he told The Times.
“Frankly I’d rather have had a police inquiry, because the beauty of a police inquiry is I’d have been absolutely exonerated and would have been in the clear.”
In a letter, Mr Williamson said he rejected an offer from Mrs May to resign rather than be sacked, saying this would have sent a signal that he accepted either he or his team was guilty.
Responding to an urgent question from Labour, Mr Lidington told the Commons: “The Prime Minister has said she now considers that this matter has been closed and the Cabinet Secretary does not consider it necessary to refer it to the police.
“But we would of course co-operate fully should the police themselves consider that an investigation were necessary.”
And Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said it was a matter for police to decide whether to investigate further.
Responding to a question from the Press Association during a visit to Ethiopia, Mr Hunt said: “Let me say that, when it comes to issues like whether there should be a police investigation or not, there’s a very, very important principle of our system that those decisions are not made by politicians, they are made independently by police.
“And that has to be the correct way forward in this situation.”
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Jo Swinson has written to Ms Dick calling for a criminal investigation “to ascertain whether the actions of Mr Williamson constitute a breach of the Official Secrets Act”.
Pressed on why information was not being passed to the police, a Downing Street source said: “It is not practice in this country for Government to make decisions in relation to prosecutions.”
They added: “This was not about what was leaked, it was about where this was leaked from and the importance of maintaining trust and the integrity of the National Security Council…
“We were very clear from the outset that, following the inquiry, Gavin Williamson’s conduct surrounding that inquiry lost the confidence of the Prime Minister… The Defence Secretary’s approach to the inquiry was different to that of the others.”