Firing Williamson for Leak Won't Silence May's Split Cabinet

(Bloomberg) -- If Theresa May thought firing Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson would bring her warring ministers into line, she was wrong.

Williamson was thrown out of the government on Wednesday for revealing secret discussions about Huawei Technologies Co.’s role in Britain. He vehemently denied being behind the leak but May said she no longer has confidence in him and he had to go.

The public arguments that have dominated May’s time in office aren’t going to disappear as a result of her decisive action. The factors causing them remain and they’re as divisive as ever.

Firing Williamson for Leak Won't Silence May's Split Cabinet

First, there’s Brexit. Britain’s system of parliamentary government isn’t designed to cope with a situation where members of the cabinet fundamentally disagree about the central policy issue. Normally in those circumstances, ministers would resign or be fired, but May’s attempt to maintain a balance of pro- and anti-EU voices has ensured constant conflict.

Second, there’s the collapse of May’s authority. Ever since she lost her majority in the 2017 election, the premier’s ability to enforce her will has been limited. Firing Williamson, or any cabinet minister, remains in her power as prime minister, but the election campaign cost her the respect of her colleagues.

Leadership Race

Third, there’s the race to succeed her. Williamson was one of the many members of cabinet who fancied their chances. Although May has set no departure date -- she says she’ll go once Brexit is delivered -- a contest is expected soon, and that creates incentives for ministers to have public arguments that flatter them. Williamson has made much in recent weeks of his willingness to confront Chinese power, which may be a reason he was suspected of being the Huawei leaker.

As for Williamson himself, although May’s office says it considers the matter closed, it’s clear he doesn’t. A former chief whip, he knows a lot of government secrets, and could be a dangerous addition to the group of enemies May has on her own benches.

The opposition, meanwhile, is calling for a police inquiry into whether he broke the law. Williamson says he is “massively comfortable” with an investigation, as it would be a chance to clear his name.

“As soon as they have the reporter’s notepad it would show that I didn’t say anything,” Williamson told Sky News on Thursday. “Then I would get the nicest apology from the PM, far nicer than the last letter she sent me.”

Whatever a police investigation showed, the prime minister is entitled to decide she no longer trusts Williamson and to fire him. Ministers have been moved on for much less in the past.

A probe might also throw up details of the way the leak inquiry was conducted that don’t flatter May’s government. David Lidington, May’s de facto deputy, said ministers don’t think it “necessary’’ to refer the matter to the police but would cooperate if the detectives did start an investigation.

And that appears unlikely. Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, told ITV news the government would have to refer the matter to them.

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