NOT so very long ago there was a senior official in No10 who everybody was scared of.
She had a habit of furiously ordering leak inquiries whenever embarrassing titbits appeared in a newspaper like this one.
EPA Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson was sacked over leaks about Huawei 5G decision but denies any involvement
2019 Steve Back Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill himself has also fallen victim to a surprising number of unauthorised disclosures about a No Deal Brexit, says Tom Newton Dunn
Weary officials would conduct exhaustive investigations about who knew what and spoke to whom — only to come back often with the conclusion that the phantom leaker was none other than the scary official herself.
That’s the thing about leaks. Everybody does it.
A general Westminster rule of thumb is the higher up the greasy pole you are, the more you leak.
Prime Ministers too, who can be some of the best sources of gossip with a glass of expensive claret (or a can of Irn-Bru) inside them.
Except the current PM, it must be said, who in ten years of dinners at Tory conference I have never managed to squeeze a squeak from.
And who’d have thought it, but the office of the Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill himself has also fallen victim to a surprising number of unauthorised disclosures about a No Deal Brexit of late.
So why does everyone in SW1 do it? Because information is power.
If you control the conversation, you can steer the debate, and take it wherever you want it. Leaks are motivated by a vast array of reasons, from pride to power struggles, vengeance and vanity. Sometimes, though not often, they’re even born of a genuinely well-intended policy debate.
Here’s another thing most don’t know. The fine art of leaking and receiving is much more complicated than those outside of the Westminster village think.
Gavin Williamson sacked – Ex-Defence Secretary, fired by PM Theresa May over Huawei leak, demands police probe into himself
‘INFORMATION IS POWER’
Leaks very seldom come anonymously stuffed in brown paper envelopes. Much more often, it’s a nod and a wink. A friendly steer over a pint, or a chance chat in a corridor.
Sadly, MPs and civil servants also very seldom ring you to say, “here’s a juicy little secret” (though if you’re one of those reading this, you’re more than welcome to).
Instead, the key to landing a leak is knowing who knows what, and precisely what to ask of them. Often it’s a game of jigsaw identification.
One “leak” could actually be the product of ten phone calls — a refusal to deny here, added to a clue there.
There is also a well-practised language of leaking.
Asking a senior Cabinet minister such as Gavin Williamson, to pick a random example, straight up what a meeting of the National Security Council decided on Chinese telecoms giant Huawei’s bid to build our 5G network may not get you very far.
But put an informed guess to them in the terms, “would I be right in thinking”, or “would I look silly tomorrow if I wrote”, opens more doors.
The answer seldom comes back “yes”. Instead, I might be told “you appear to be very well informed, Tom”, or “hmm, your usual good sources aren’t up to much today, sunshine”.
That way, ministers can leak while at the same time being able to deny that they did. Neither are all leaks on purpose. The majority, I’d argue, are unintentional, and from an unplanned moment of weakness. Such as a politician having a good old bitch on their iPhone, slumped in front of Newsnight, watching a colleague opine while they never got the call to appear.
The digital revolution has been a tremendous blessing to us from Judas, the Patron Saint of Leaks.
A photo of a policy document or a screen grab of an impassioned WhatsApp group conversation has sent leaking into light speed. But digital leaking also leaves a footprint that is hard to erase.
That’s why many people’s leaking mechanism of choice these days is Signal, a highly encrypted messaging app very popular in Washington DC and imported to SW1 by American election gurus.
It’s no coincidence that some of the strongest governments in recent times had the most vice-like grip on information releaseTom Newton DunnPolitical Editor
Signal has a setting that permanently erases all messages within ten minutes of them being read, Mission Impossible-style.
Not everything should be leaked. Genuine national secrets put lives in danger. And contrary to what you might think, we don’t report everything we’re told. The art of gaining a source’s trust is not to use everything they say, but to protect them.
Neither are message control or leak hunts new. It’s no coincidence that some of the strongest governments in recent times had the most vice-like grip on information release. Margaret Thatcher’s Press Secretary Bernard Ingham or Tony Blair’s Alastair Campbell are the two biggest modern-day control freaks.
CommentTHE SUN SAYS The evidence behind Gavin Williamson’s Huawei sacking needs to be made public CommentLEO MCKINSTRY May sacrificed Williamson – but she’s the real threat to national security CommentROD LIDDLE We’re all paying more on our bills because Tories fear the loony eco-warriors CommentLEO MCKINSTRY Hypocritical Corbyn isn’t for the many and certainly NOT for the Jew CommentTHE SUN SAYS Gavin Williamson’s hasty sacking is yet another misstep by Theresa May
Throughout Theresa May’s first year in No10, the Cabinet lived in fear of her two rottweiler chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. But that didn’t make them the best governments.
If only there had been more of a public debate about some of May’s rash early red lines on Brexit, for example, informed by garrulous Government tongues, would we be in the mess we’re currently in?
If more decisions about the Iraq War had been leaked from Tony Blair’s sofa, would the invasion have gone ahead in the same catastrophic way?
Ignore the securocrats’ scare stories. Because the truth is, loose tongues in the corridors of power are the oil in the Mother of Parliaments’ engine, and the lifeblood of our democracy.
Tom Newton Dunn is Political Editor of The Sun
Reuters Throughout Theresa May’s first year in No10, the Cabinet lived in fear of her two rottweiler chiefs of staff
AFP Margaret Thatcher’s Press Secretary Bernard Ingham or Tony Blair’s Alastair Campbell are the two biggest modern-day control freaks
PA:Press Association If more decisions about the Iraq War had been leaked from Tony Blair’s sofa, would the invasion have gone ahead?
Rex Features A general Westminster rule of thumb is the higher up the greasy pole you are, the more you leak
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson previously denied leaking National Security Council information