Amid the uncertainty unleashed by the Covid-19 pandemic, a crucial development has been rumbling beneath the surface of British politics. The controversial decision made by Boris Johnson’s government, to allow Huawei – the Chinese telecoms giant – to play a role in building the UK’s 5G digital infrastructure continues to be a point of contention among the Conservative Party.
When Boris Johnson announced his decision on Huawei, on January 28, the political landscape looked very different. Fresh from his December victory in the 2019 general election, the Prime Minister had just secured a stunning landslide, riding back into the House of Commons on the back of a whopping personal mandate.
The decision to allow Huawei to build the UK’s 5G networks, while capping its market share at 35%, was seen in Number 10 as a compromise move, allowing digital infrastructure to be built cheaply and at speed without permitting the Huawei access to sensitive “core” areas of the UK’s network.
But from early on, the PM’s decision was controversial among his own party. His government came under severe criticisms from many on its own benches – and met with a vociferous backlash from the White House.
On March 10, the week before the full severity of the coronavirus pandemic raging across the world reached the UK, a crucial vote was held in the House of Commons. Thirty-eight Conservative MPs voted for an amendment to the Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill – introduced by the former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith – which would ban Huawei’s involvement in building the UK’s 5G networks.
In a speech in the House, Duncan Smith declared that: “If defence of the realm is our number one priority, then this becomes demi-defence of the realm, and I am simply not prepared to put up with that.”
Despite losing this vote, in a rebellion that cut Boris Johnson’s majority down to just 24, disquiet in the Tory ranks has continued to build. While the media and ministers have been focused on the logistical problems of PPE shortages, testing targets, and the UK’s long national lockdown, the potential for a new confrontation over the Huawei Question has been mounting.
David Davis, a prominent MP and former Brexit Secretary, was one of the thirty eight who defied the party whip in March. He continues to argue for a more robust approach to the threats posed by Huawei, citing evidence that the company is backed and promoted by the Chinese Communist Party as a vehicle for carrying out cyberattacks and distorting free markets.
“We need a new relationship with China on the world stage, one which continues to value trade but doesn’t tolerate Beijing breaking the rules”, Davis says. “I think that we, along with the other Five Eyes, need to make it clear that we will trade with China on fair terms, but if they try to manipulate our free markets for malign or mercantilist purposes, we will not accept it and we will shut them out of our markets.”
Critics of the government’s decision outside of parliament also say that there were deep flaws in the reasoning given by the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues. Declan Ganley, Chairman and CEO of Rivada Networks, a US-based telecoms company, warns that “trying to protect the ‘core’ of the 5G networks fundamentally misunderstands how 5G works”.
He explains: “you want trusted vendors throughout the network. The idea that you can have 35% of a network in the hands of a vendor that is answerable to the Communist Party of China, and be safe, is the same as believing that you can be a little bit pregnant. You either have a trusted network or you do not have a trusted network.”
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Even if Huawei were to be limited to a portion of the network, Ganley adds, they “could punch a hole in your network and you wouldn’t necessarily see it.”
On the strategic level, too, there are many who believe that the Prime Minister and his advisers have been naïve in their interpretation of Beijing’s motives. And unlike previous divisions in the Conservative Party over Europe, which have plagued several of Johnson’s predecessors, there are reasons to believe that a potential rift over China would pose an even more severe problem for the man in Number Ten. The rising Sinoscepticism in the party unites a far broader cross-section of conservatives – from libertarians and champions of Brexit, such as Davis, to centrist and previously pro-European Tories.
The new China Research Group launched by Conservative MPs on April 24 to better scrutinise the UK’s relationship with Beijing, has a decidedly centrist membership. It includes, for instance, the current Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Tom Tugendhat. Having also voted against the government in March, Tugendhat has been a vocal critic of the Huawei decision. He continues to warn of the threats posed to Western governments by the ambitions of the Chinese government.
All of this means that, when the government returns to the thorny question of Huawei in the anticipated Telecommunications Security Bill, the circumstances will likely be very different. Davis believes that the government would be “unlikely” to win a vote in parliament on Huawei next time round, saying: “The mood I’m picking up from colleagues about the (Huawei) decision isn’t positive”.
The atmosphere – both in parliament and among the public – has shifted. The events the last three months have caused many to look on Beijing with new eyes.
The Chinese state’s controversial coverup of the early outbreak of the new coronavirus in Wuhan, combined with the persistent stream of misinformation promoted by its embassies across Europe in the aftermath, has brought the UK’s relationship with Beijing back into the spotlight with a vengeance. It has at the same time galvanised the growing Sinosceptism across different parts of the Conservative Party.
The Prime Minister, focused on the pressing issues of how and when to manage the end of the UK’s coronavirus lockdown, will now also have to turn his mind to placating dissent in his own party. He will find it a far more considerable challenge to get his MPs to toe the Downing Street line on Huawei from now on.
On UK-China relations in general, Boris Johnson will have to take care not to become, like so many of his recent predecessors, a leader at war with his own benches. Having won such a large majority in the general election, he may yet prove to be more an imperilled than an imperial Prime Minister.