‘ “This is quite ridiculous,” David Cameron snapped at ministers gathered in Britain’s modest version of the White House situation room, known as Cobra, in the depths of the Cabinet Office. “Why cannot I just order they are going to go, and I will provide a waiver and indemnity on the legalities?” ‘
We quote from the Guardian‘s account of a National Security Council meeting in 2011, and of how “the Prime Minister’s irritation was directed at Dominic Grieve” in “Britain’s modest version of the White House situation room, known as Cobra, in the depths of the Cabinet Office”. The row was over the legality of transferring money to Libyan rebels.
Are you dissatisfied with the Guardian as a source? In which case, let us refer you to a Times report of the same year. “[Alan] Duncan confronted the NSC with intelligence from the oil world that hastily arranged sanctions were hurting the rebels while leaving the Libyan dictator’s war machine untouched”.
Which brings us to the current row over the leak to the Daily Telegraph of an NSC row about Huawei – and whether the Chinese company should or should not help to build Britain’s new 5G network. The point we are making is obvious. Contrary to some claims, leaks from the NSC aren’t new. The question is: given that context, what should be done about this one? Journalists and Ministers have different interests here – not only from each other but even, sometimes, among themselves.
Journalists love leaks. At least, those who get them do. Leaks mean stories and stories mean kudos – which Steven Swinford, who took the lead in breaking the Telegraph story, has thus gained.
But what about other journalists? Sometimes, they take a different approach, particularly if they don’t get so many leaks themselves. They reach instead for another sort of story – exposing the mole! Or at least hinting at whom he or she might be. Or at the very least luring one of their colleagues to do so, in a game of grandmother’s footsteps. The first step of the game is well-known: ask cui bono?
In this case, the beneficiary might be an unhappy civil serrvant. Or a Special Adviser doing what his or her Minister has told them to do. Or that SpAd doing what he thinks his Minister would want without actually having been told. (Cabinet Ministers are not meant to discuss NSC proceedings with their SpAds, by the way) Or a Minister who is a leadership contender seeking to do down another Minister who is a leadership contender. It is this delicious possibility that has excited some journalists almost beyond endurance.
No to mention some Ministers, too. Naturally, they all deplore leaks – unless, needless to say, they are leaking themselves. And so they are currently doing, on an unprecedented scale. Some have always briefed journalists about what happens in Cabinet – in recent times, at any rate. What has changed is that some now do so before the meeting has even taken place, telling those the hacks in question what they propose to say before they have even said it. It isn’t at all clear why policy discussions at the NSC are more sacronsanct than those at Cabinet.
For Ministers, read civil servants, too. Mark Sedwill is reported to be furious about the leak. The Cabinet Secretary is demanding that the personal e-mails and mobile phones of Cabinet Ministers as well as SpAds are checked. We trust that he is being no less exacting about the leak in March of secret Cabinet Office documents about the preparedness of government for No Deal.
On the Huawei leak, the following applies, or should do.
First, the Government is perfectly entitled to crack down on leaks, if it wishes. If it wants, say, to check the mobile phones of Ministers – and not simply target their SpAds pour décourager les autres – all well and good.
Second – and the point does not contradict the first – the Huawei story is a legitimate one. It was basically the account of a policy disagreement, not of secret operations.
It follows that proportionality is required. Had the Telegraph, say, revealed the names of any British agents who may happen to be operating in China – not that one can imagine such a thing – government would be entitled to bring the full force of GCHQ to bear.
But the paper did nothing of the kind. Certainly, its account will have been inconvenient for Sir Mark, as well as for the Government more broadly. It will have wanted to present the Huawei decision as Ministers getting tough on China, by restricting the firm’s access. After all, this is a Home Office government with a security focus. The Prime Minister is a former Home Secretary and Sedwill a former Permanent Secretary in the department.
Instead, theTelegraph framed the story as Ministers going weak on China, carrying a quote critical of the decision from Tom Tugendhat, and others presenting the country in a negative light.
A question for Sedwill, then, is: how far does he want to go over a leak that, though rare in character, was far from exceptional? Is it worth perhaps obtaining a Ministerial scalp over the matter, with the Government in its current condition, by ordering an enquiry more exacting than the usual one? Should the police be called in? As we say, a crackdown on leaks would, within sensible limits, be perfectly in order. But with a Government so febrile, Theresa May should beware of the law of unexpected consequences.