Differences between Britain and America over the participation of Chinese telecoms firm Huawei in fifth generation mobile telecoms networks where at the heart of a bitter public feud on Thursday after the summary dismissal of the UK defence minister.
Gavin Williamson, the dismissed cabinet member, rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to fire him on the basis of a leak to newspaper following a meeting of the country’s National Security Council. Aides to the sacked minister said that another participant in the highest-level discussion on Huawei’s closeness to the Chinese security apparatus had divulged the information.
Disseminating information from the NSC is a crime under the Official Secrets Act. However an inquiry by the National Security Adviser, Sir Mark Sedwell has stopped short of recommending Mr Williamson is also prosecuted for an offence.
The key allegation against the 44-year old former household appliances is that he held an 11-minute telephone call with a journalist who broke the story hours after the key meeting. Mr Williamson was on the losing side of the argument having argued for a ban on further use of the Chinese-developed technology.
Britain has been under pressure from Washington for months to abandon Huawei. The most senior soldier in the US Gen Joseph Dunford added his voiced to warnings America would reduce cooperation with Britain if it pressed ahead. The five country shared intelligence network consisting of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand has been put into doubt by the dispute, he said.
“One of the things that underlines an alliance is the ability to share information and when we share information with allies and partners we have to have common standards of information assurance,” Gen Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told a Congressional committee. “We have to be sure that our secrets are protected, whether it be intelligence or technology transfer.”
British officials said that non-core elements of the 5G network could accommodate Huawei technology. Indeed since the next generation systems will be built on the exist Huawei-supplied 4G network it may hard to gain separation anyway. “We’re taking — rather than sort of a blanket approach to it — we’re taking a very sophisticated approach to it which entails understanding of the threats and the risks, understanding what the networks would entail,” according to Britain’s second most senior military officer, vice-chief of Defence Staff, Gen Sir Gordon Messenger.
Australia has also banned a Chinese role in its network, while New Zealand was last week exploring a move to follow the British lead.
Despite Mr Williamson’s protestations of innocence, Downing St said there would be no going back on the decision. The sacking has seen the appointment of the first female Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt, who is also a reservist in the Royal Navy. Her old job in the International Development department has been given to Rory Stewart, an author and diplomat who formerly lived and worked in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mrs May had announced that she no longer had confidence in Mr Williamson, who ran her Conservative Party leadership bid in 2016, in an unusually brusque letter on Wednesday. David Liddington, the Cabinet office minister, said Thursday there would be no reversal of the decision, adding criminal charges remained a possibility.
“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 cooperate fully should the police themselves consider that an investigation were necessary,” he said.
Former top solider Richard Dannatt said he had spoked to Mr Williamson in the aftermath of his fall from grace. While sympathetic to his plight, Gen Dannatt caveated his support.
“He has to protest his innocence over this, otherwise he is laying himself open to potentially criminal prosecution,” he said.