In many ways Gavin Williamson, the sacked Tory defence secretary, is a preposterous figure. As chief whip, he helped Theresa May become prime minister. Promoted to defence secretary in November 2017, he struck hawkish poses.
In a speech in February he declared that “Global Britain” must, in “an era of ‘Great Power’ competition”, be prepared to take “action to oppose those who flout international law… And action, on occasion, that may lead us to have to intervene alone.”
He said Britain’s new aircraft carrier the Queen Elizabeth would be sent to the Pacific and implied it would enter the South China Sea, which is claimed by China. This infuriated the Chinese government, which cancelled a trade visit to China by chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond. I don’t know why they didn’t just roar with laughter—the Chinese armed forces have developed missiles designed specifically to sink aircraft carriers.
According to the Sunday Times newspaper there was more of this in private. When May refused his request to send Royal Navy warships into the South China Sea, Williamson reportedly scrawled “fuck the prime minister” on the accompanying paperwork.
According to a leaked National Security Document, Williamson proposed sending British soldiers to at least five African countries, including Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Kenya and Egypt. Ministry of Defence officials told the Sunday Times that Williamson wanted to “find excuses to send troops … He wanted to invade Africa … He made it clear that he was keen to send the troops in.”
It’s remarkable that sources presumably close to May are leaking National Security Council discussions to discredit Williamson, when she sacked him for leaking such a discussion to the Telegraph. This suggests that her real motive was to impose order on an increasingly divided and rebellious cabinet.
The leak that ostensibly led to Williamson’s dismissal was once again about China. He was apparently opposing her decision to go against Donald Trump and allow the Chinese IT company Huawei limited involvement in Britain’s programme to develop a 5G network.
But all this posturing is really about the Tory party leadership election that must take place in the next few months—or perhaps even earlier if a poor performance in the European elections finally brings May down.
The Tory rank and file overwhelmingly support a hard Brexit. So ambitious Tories such as Williamson and foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, who voted to remain, have to reinvent themselves as Brexiteers. Remarkably, Hunt ruled out agreeing to Labour’s main demand in its negotiations with the government—that Britain stays in a customs union with the European Union—on the Radio 4 Today programme last week. He wasn’t sacked, even though this was a pretty open defiance of cabinet collective responsibility.
Williamson’s hawkishness has also been calculated with the leadership election in view. Hanging tough on China implies—despite the nonsense about “intervening alone”—aligning Britain with the United States. Trump has just tightened the screws on China by threatening to raise tariffs on all Chinese imports by 25 percent.
This fits in with the ultra Brexiteer fantasy of a “global Britain” outside the EU and in close partnership with the US. The trouble is that there is someone who can play this game much better than Williamson, namely Boris Johnson. When Trump has his state visit in June he will probably have a private dinner with Johnson, who he says would make a “great prime minister”.
Williamson is supposed to have boasted to the heads of the armed forces, “I made her—and I can break her.” But if he did succeed in bringing May down, the beneficiary would probably be Johnson. This would be the European Union’s ultimate nightmare—being faced with Johnson in 10 Downing St trying to renegotiate May’s withdrawal treaty. The chances of a no-deal Brexit, which many Tories support, would then be very high.
All this underlines how important it is that Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t bail May out. The instability on the Tory side means he could soon be facing Johnson in a general election.