Thursday 2 May 2019 5:03 pm

Guilty until proven innocent?

The brutal but surgical dismissal of Gavin Williamson, the secretary of state for defence, came like a sudden bolt from a clear blue sky. The Huawei leak scandal had been brewing for a while, but Whitehall veterans assumed, as did many, that it would go the way of a thousand government leak inquiries before it; form and process would be observed, grave words about confidentiality and integrity would be intoned, and then, gently and discreetly, nothing would happen.

It was late on Wednesday evening when the axe fell. The prime minister interviewed Williamson, and was apparently dissatisfied with his conduct and his engagement with the leak inquiry in general. There were rumours, later thought to be unfounded, that the outgoing defence secretary had refused to hand over his mobile phone. Whatever the truth, the PM’s response was stern:

“It is […] with great sadness that I have concluded that I can no longer have full confidence in you as Secretary of State for Defence and a minister in my cabinet and asked you to leave Her Majesty’s Government.”

Despite the figleaf of warm words about his wider contribution to the armed forces, nothing could disguise the fact that Williamson had been summarily dismissed with a stain on his conduct.

Williamson’s response was equally robust. He insisted that he “emphatically” believed that the leak did not originate in the MoD, and “strenuously” denied that he had been in any way involved in it. To a Sky reporter, he swore on his children’s lives that he was not responsible. It was, he claimed, a vendetta against him by the cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill. A very clear message, then: not me, guv.

The Daily Telegraph reported on this very firm rebuttal by Williamson. “You’ve got the wrong person,” they quoted. The outgoing defence secretary had been “completely screwed”. So it was the usual Whitehall pas de deux. Literally, he said, she said.

It’s worth looking carefully at how the Telegraph reported this, though. For all that the exchange of letters between Theresa May and her one-time colleague was blunt and to-the-point, there is nuance here which is important. As is so often the way in politics, it’s a matter of looking not at the black print but at the white spaces. What did the Telegraph not say? They didn’t say that they know Williamson to be innocent. Not did they state that Williamson was not their source. Either of these facts would have made the story much stronger and newsworthy, so it only requires a mildly cynical mind to think that the opposite must be the case: in essence, they are reporting that Williamson claims that he is innocent. An interesting add-on to the story, but really, nothing revelatory. No new information, no radical insight. Simply a recitation of the facts as Williamson had stated them to be.

The argument will be made that journalists never reveal their sources, and that they can’t be expected to get into an arms race of denying that this or that person was their source as others try to narrow down the field of possible suspects. Perhaps, as a general rule, that is true. But these are exceptional times. A very senior member of the cabinet has been dismissed for leaking to the press. Did he or didn’t he?

There are no true secrets in government. Or, at least, very few. The identity of the leaker is known, and likely known to more than the culprit and the journalist. It is interesting that Gavin Williamson admits that he spoke to the journalist involved on the day of the leak itself. Yet, he maintains, he was not the source. Is this credible? His denials are categorical and seem to leave no room for interpretation, but he would hardly be the first politician to tell an untruth in order to get out of a tight spot. He has already paid the price: but did he do it? This matters. Did a minister of the crown leak then lie about it, or was he framed by a conspiracy involving the head of the civil service? Neither is a favourable outcome for good governance. But we need to face whichever unpalatable truth is revealed. The Telegraph needs to speak up now.

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