The chaos of Brexit has provided a number of political shocks which have seen parliamentary institutions lose their credibility with the voters. Yet none have been quite as dramatic as tonight’s sacking from the cabinet by the prime minister of defence secretary Gavin Williamson. An investigation had found “compelling evidence” that Mr Williamson was behind the leak of a controversial decision taken at the government’s National Security Council, which is chaired by the prime minister and contains senior ministers as well as security officials, that agreed the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei could build parts of the UK’s 5G network. Mr Williamson has denied being the source of the Huawei story. Theresa May, who has seen her own authority drain away in the last few months, had no option but to fire a minister who she could not trust with her government’s most sensitive decisions.
The affair raises important questions about the nature and character of politics. There is a strong case for public interest leaking. There may be decisions taken that are immoral or illegal. These the public ought to know about. Others might use the media to get a policy changed as a matter of course. Or in other circumstances a secret may need to be revealed in order for parliament to make an informed decision. All these are reasonable defences of the right to leak. But Mr Williamson appears to have undertaken this act with political goals in mind, namely out of a desire to embarrass cabinet rivals. He has form. In February, Mr Williamson’s threat to deploy a warship in the Pacific forced the chancellor, Philip Hammond, to cancel a trip to Beijing. It is obvious that the premature or anonymous disclosure of information can damage trust and morale within government; but it is also an acknowledged lubricant of political life. No government has appeared able or willing to stamp out this practice. But Mr Williamson’s transgression was of a different order. When a minister, presumably blinded by the ambition to succeed Mrs May, supplies the details of national security decisions to the press, something has gone very wrong in government.