Opposition parties are stepping up pressure on Theresa May to refer the leak of National Security Council secrets to the police for criminal investigation, following the sensational dismissal of Gavin Williamson as Defence Secretary.
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick made clear that Scotland Yard will not launch an inquiry unless the case is referred to them by the Government.
But Cabinet Office minister David Lidington told MPs there was no plan to pass information from its leak inquiry to police, telling the House of Commons that the Prime Minister regarded it as “closed”.
It is understood the information leaked from the meeting was not judged by Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill to be of a classification level that would require a criminal investigation.
But Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson has now written to Mrs May calling on her “as a matter of urgency” to pass the information gathered by Sir Mark on to the police “so an appropriate investigation can take place”.
Mr Williamson himself has said he would welcome a police probe, which he believes would “absolutely exonerate” him.
Mr Watson said it was “clear” the unauthorised disclosure of secret NSC discussions on the involvement of Chinese tech giant Huawei in the UK’s 5G phone network could amount to a breach of the Official Secrets Act.
He told Mrs May: “The lack of action from your Government to refer these matters to the police is putting the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in an impossible position.
“She will not be able to investigate without access to the information gathered by your internal inquiry. This information is held by the Cabinet Office.
“It is not for the ministers or civil servants in the Cabinet Office to determine whether the information they have gathered meets the threshold for a criminal investigation. Public interest dictates that it is the police and Crown Prosecution Service that must make this assessment.”
Mr Watson has also called for Mr Williamson to forfeit the £17,000 severance payment to which he is entitled on leaving the Government.
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Jo Swinson has written to Ms Dick calling for a criminal investigation.
Downing Street said any decision on launching a criminal investigation was a matter for police.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “There’s a very, very important principle of our system that those decisions are not made by politicians, they are made independently by police.
“And that has to be the correct way forward in this situation.”
But Ms Dick indicated that, in reality, an investigation was only likely to be triggered in response to a referral from Government.
“If the Cabinet Office were to send us a referral at any point that relates to apparent official secrets or leaks, we would assess that,” she said.
A formal decision on launching an investigation would be taken by the Met’s deputy commissioner, said Ms Dick. But she added: “That is hypothetical because we have not had any referral from the Cabinet Office.
“We will look at any complaint we may get and if there is relevant evidence we will always look at it.”
Mr Lidington, who is Mrs May’s effective deputy, told the House of Commons: “The Prime Minister has said she now considers that this matter has been closed and the Cabinet Secretary does not consider it necessary to refer it to the police.
“But we would, of course, co-operate fully should the police themselves consider that an investigation were necessary.”
Mr Watson retorted: “In what world is it acceptable that the Prime Minister should be the arbiter of whether a politician she believes is guilty of criminal conduct in office should face a criminal investigation?”
A string of senior Conservative MPs also demanded a full investigation.
Former minister Sir Desmond Swayne said Mr Williamson had effectively been branded a liar, telling MPs: “Natural justice requires that the evidence is produced so that his reputation can be salvaged or utterly destroyed.”
Wellingborough MP Peter Bone said: “The former secretary of state has said that, on the lives of his children, he did not leak the information.
“This seems to have been a kangaroo court reaching a decision in secret which we have no evidence to base any decision on.”
Mr Williamson’s abrupt firing as head of the Ministry of Defence sent shockwaves around Westminster on Wednesday after Mrs May said the inquiry had found “compelling evidence” suggesting he was to blame.
He was immediately replaced by the UK’s first woman Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt, whose position of International Development Secretary was filled by prisons minister Rory Stewart. But he retains his position on the Privy Council, which allows him to be invited to see secret material.
Pressed on why information was not being passed to the police, a Downing Street source said: “This was not about what was leaked, it was about where this was leaked from and the importance of maintaining trust and the integrity of the National Security Council.”
Ex-Army chief General Lord Dannatt defended Mr Williamson’s performance as defence secretary.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It’s a very difficult brief, people take quite some time to learn it, and he has got to grips with it pretty well over the last 18 months.
“He got £1.8 billion extra in the Budget last year and was continuing to argue the case for more resources in the Spending Review and he was fighting his corner.”
But the general’s assessment was questioned by one Whitehall source, who told the Press Association: “Gavin could have secured far more money for the long-term defence budget if he had allowed his officials to work with Government departments on policy challenges.
“Instead, he played games and allowed personal politics to get in the way of securing funding on our security and defence. He hadn’t engaged senior Cabinet ministers on funding talks in months.”