Transport Secretary Chris Grayling came under increasing pressure last night following claims that the security services had to intervene to ‘get a grip’ on the drone crisis.
The Mail on Sunday has been told that National Security Secretariat directors ‘stepped in’ to take command of the incident early on Thursday afternoon.
The covert team liaise between MI5 and Whitehall, and an emergency meeting of security officials was held later that day at the Cabinet Office – without Mr Grayling.
Meanwhile ministers are also scrambling to protect against potential copycat strikes at other airports around the country.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling is under increasing pressure amid claims National Security Secretariat directors ‘stepped in’ to take command of the Gatwick incident on Thursday
According to the
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson told the paper the Armed Forces would assist wherever possible and senior Government figures will meet today to discuss the future response.
MI5’s intervention came more than 17 hours after the first drone spotted at the Sussex airport unleashed travel chaos – and the finger of blame is now pointed at the Transport Secretary for the dire response.
As a war of words broke out, one Whitehall insider said: ‘The trouble with the Department for Transport is whenever there is a problem they always rely on ‘the providers’. There was too much seeking guidance and not enough action.
‘They should have been telling Gatwick what to do from the start, rather than waiting for their feedback. You can’t just leave this sort of thing to the operators.’
Last night allies of the Transport Secretary rejected this version of events, claiming Mr Grayling was never in charge in the first place. Friends insist he was still chairing ministerial response meetings on Friday and that the crisis had been a police matter all along.
One ally of Mr Grayling said: ‘From the start this has been a police operation supported by the Home Office, Transport, Defence and other security agencies.’
But Labour last night called on the Prime Minister to sack Mr Grayling, saying he had ‘heaped embarrassment on humiliation and incompetence’.
Police officers stand near counter drone equipment on the rooftop of a building at London Gatwick Airport, south of London, on Friday
Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald said: ‘If he was relieved of command in these circumstances, Theresa May should relieve him of duty immediately.’
And the Whitehall spat opened on a separate front yesterday over whether repeated warnings from the Home Office about the threat of drones to major infrastructure hubs had been ignored by officials.
It was claimed that Department for Transport bosses were more concerned about protecting aircraft from birds than they were about investing in anti-drone technology.
A senior Government source said: ‘They were warned about these threats and did nothing about it.
‘There was equipment that could have been bought to stop this, but it never was.
‘They do a lot about birds but did nothing to deal with this.’
But the Department of Transport said police were in charge from the start.
A government spokesperson said: ‘The operational response to the incident at Gatwick and efforts to find those responsible has been led by the airport and Sussex Police from the start.
‘The Transport Secretary led the Government’s overall response and continues to do so, to suggest otherwise shows a clear distance from and ignorance of the facts on the ground.’
Richard Walton, former Met Police counter-terror chief, also told The Telegraph copycat incidents were likely following the attacks.
He added: ‘And the ease with which a major UK aviation hub was brought to a standstill will not have escaped the attention of terrorist groups who will be wondering why they have not tried using drones before.’
A Whitehall source also told the paper: ‘We are very concerned about any potential copycats and measures are being taken to address that.’
An RAF and Army force is expected to remain at Gatwick for at least a fortnight to guard against any further activity.