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Huawei affair triggers another Tory civil war


LAST week I described how the civil service’s anti-Americanism and China’s trade deal encouraged Theresa May’s government to involve Huawei in Britain’s 5G phone network and to sack the main dissenter, Gavin Williamson, then Defence Secretary.

The dispute has since turned into an outright civil war within the Parliamentary Conservative Party, with each side accusing the other of smears and criminal leakage of information.

This is where the two sides of the dispute need to be clarified. Theresa May cast the deciding vote in favour of Huawei in the National Security Council (NSC) on 23 April. She has no confidence in Britain’s prospects in the big wide world, so seeks to keep Britain embedded in the EU and to bandwagon with China. She has negotiated with the EU at least two proposals to keep Britain largely in the customs union (and thence largely entailed to the single market), and is currently negotiating with the Labour Party, whose policy is to stay in the customs union. On Sunday, she justified this negotiation as ‘a stepping stone to a brighter future, outside the EU’.

Her ‘brighter future’ is largely inside the EU and further east. Theresa May’s favour to the EU and China is encouraged by her Chancellor, Philip Hammond. He was at the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ forum in Beijing during the NSC. On the day after the leak, he said: ‘The UK is committed to helping to realise the potential of the BRI’, and ‘to bring together the best of Chinese manufacturing, engineering, and construction, with the best of British project design and legal, technical, and financial services expertise, as we promise the golden era of UK-China relations to deliver world-class sustainable infrastructure for the 21st century’.

May’s next greatest enabler is Sir Mark Sedwill, whom she has appointed progressively as National Security Adviser, Cabinet Secretary, and Head of the Civil Service (he holds all appointments simultaneously). This week he will be leading a mission to China with the 15 permanent secretaries (the highest-ranking civil servants from the ministries/departments).

The other enablers on the NSC are David Lidington, May’s de facto deputy, Greg Clark, the Business Secretary, and Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General.

The dissenters against May’s choice were Trade Secretary Liam Fox, Home Secretary Sajid Javid, International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, and Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, all of whom have leadership ambitions.

Any of them or their staff would have a motive to leak, but motive is not evidence. The suspicion was focused on Williamson: in February, he had spoken publicly about the need to contest Chinese aggrandisement in neighbouring seas. The next day, the Chinese government suspended Hammond’s imminent trip to China and its own mission to London to sign a trade deal in June.

Williamson had clashed with Sedwill over matters of policy (for instance, Williamson opposed further defence cuts proposed by Hammond and Sedwill) and authority (for instance, Sedwill wanted more control over the MoD). So, in terms of personalities alone, the dispute reduced to Sedwill versus Williamson.

This is where the timing becomes important. On Tuesday 23 April, the National Security Council met secretly to approve a choice that the government claims has no national security implications (!) That evening, somebody leaked the news. Williamson has admitted that he spoke with the journalist who reported the story, but denies discussing Huawei.

Two days later, on Thursday 25 April, Sedwill started an investigation. Some insiders suggest that he initiated it himself, although the Prime Minister’s Office claims that she ordered him to do so. He wrote to the principals and their staff the same day. On the Friday they received questionnaires. The same day, May’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell warned that the leaker would be fired, regardless of rank. The questioning continued over the weekend.

By Williamson’s account, and others, Sedwill’s investigation was slapdash and hypocritical. His only evidence against Williamson was that he had spoken to a journalist on the Wednesday. Sedwill has been accused before of his own leaks from the NSC. During the investigation, he showed at least one of Williamson’s texts to staff. Sedwill alone reported to the Prime Minister. On Wednesday 1 May she offered Williamson two options, to resign or be fired, claiming no other explanation for the leak.

Yet the next day, her government refused to make it a criminal matter, and refused to disclose its evidence to Parliament or police. I suspect the government would rather hide the poverty of its investigation and its prior decisions in favour of Huawei over security and favour a civil servant over a secretary of state.

Since then the two sides have briefed against each other. In the most recent Sunday papers, unnamed allies of May were reported as claiming that Williamson had been overheard during a private dinner in December talking indiscreetly about May’s health. Williamson says that claim is a smear.

The dispute between the two sides has intensified with May’s Cabinet reshuffle. May promoted Penny Mordaunt from International Development to replace Williamson as Defence Secretary. Mordaunt has played both sides until siding with the PM. In October, during the last reported Cabinet ‘civil war’, she hinted at resignation in opposition to May’s proposal to keep Britain in the customs union,  but since then she has equally quietly acquiesced.

May promoted prisons minister Rory Stewart to DfID. I have identified Stewart before as another of her fake conservatives who would rather not send criminals to jail and is ever ready to spin her EU (non-)Withdrawal Agreement but can never articulate why. Michael St George’s excellent TCW article yesterday describes Stewart as ‘the sycophant’s sycophant’.

The Parliamentary Conservative Party is in civil war, and civil wars are most likely to self-perpetuate for many bloody years before being resolved by a split.

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Bruce Newsome
Bruce Newsome
Bruce Newsome is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas Permian Basin. He is also the author of the anti-woke satire "The Dark Side of Sunshine" (Perseublishing, 2020).

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