The Prime Minister’s decision to sack her Defence Secretary has created a big mess. Many involved in the inquiry into a leak from a National Security Council meeting now find themselves in even more difficult positions. So while Downing Street has said it considers the matter closed, that seems unlikely.
The person suffering the greatest damage is Gavin Williamson. Being accused of leaking from the NSC is a major infraction, and being sacked for it is an unprecedented experience for a Cabinet Minister. Hugh Dalton resigned in 1947, on a matter of principle, for leaking the Budget, while John Profumo’s role in a major national security scandal saw him resign in 1963 – although his actual crime was lying to the Commons. Except in reshuffles, ministers are rarely sacked. By and large they are given the chance to resign, as Williamson apparently was. However, he chose not to admit any guilt and has since attacked the inquiry and the PM after embarking on an extraordinary offensive. It seems he does not want this to go away.
While Williamson is the biggest loser, this is no success for Theresa May either. The fact that the leak took place highlights her fragile authority. She may have taken the bold step of following through on the inquiry’s conclusions – many PM’s have preferred for leak inquiries to go away rather than cause even greater embarrassment – but in doing so she has only increased her enemies in her own party. And the story is not likely to end here. Opposition MPs are calling for further investigations, though No.10 are resisting. And the more Williamson defends himself, the more No.10 will be under pressure to prove that it got the right person and has not defamed an innocent minister.
But the inquiry’s most worrying outcome is the attacks on the Cabinet Secretary. Many voices had been calling for the leak inquiry, which makes it even more damaging to see attacks on officials for delivering one. Some of these come from Williamson himself, who argued that a ‘full and proper’ investigation would have cleared him. Williamson is not the first minister to argue that the process of investigation of ministerial malpractice should be a more formal legal process, but that is a complete misreading of the role of the Ministerial Code and the PM’s powers to hire and fire. If ministers and external observers want leak inquiries to mean anything, that means accepting consequences like this. If the Cabinet Secretary ends up damaged by this episode then it will undermine the inclination of future officials to see such inquiries through.
The only upside, from the Government’s perspective, would be a stemming of government leaks. It is not a new occurrence, but the scale, speed and seriousness of the leaks from this Government is unprecedented. The Prime Minister won’t have reinforced her authority through this episode, but she has helped set a standard for the future. To know that they face being sacked and outed as the culprit, with a massive reputational impact on their political career, is a huge deterrent for any minister. Other Conservative pretenders to the premiership would do well to remember that, and this inquiry will make it much easier for them to set a line in the sand about the kind of behaviour they are willing to overlook and what they are not.
Ultimately, this was the PM’s decision. The inquiry did not deliver incontrovertible evidence. But that wasn’t needed. This was not a criminal inquiry or a court of law, and those examining the words ‘compelling evidence’ need to remember that this is evidence to inform the PM about whether she wanted to sack a minister. It was an internal inquiry, and it ended with a political judgment. It is a judgment which will cast a long shadow.