With the news dominated by the coronavirus, Rishi Sunak’s budget and the Prince Harry leak, one significant story ended up buried this week – even though it has huge implications for Britain’s future.
As many will know, the Tories have been battling it out for months over whether to allow Huawei, the Chinese technology company, to control the country’s 5G networks.
The project was given the go ahead earlier this year, but on Tuesday, 38 MPs staged one of the biggest rebellions yet against its roll-out – backing an amendment to end Huawei’s participation in Britain’s networks by the start of 2023.
The rebels include former cabinet ministers Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Liam Fox, David Davis, Esther McVey and two select committee chairman; Tom Tugendhat and Tobias Ellwood, Chair of the Defence Select Committee, who said: “the Government should be on warning… that this House believes that we need to wean ourselves off Huawei.”
With Johnson’s “stonking majority” in December, it was easy to believe that these sort of tensions couldn’t happen in 2020. But they are a massive wake-up call as to how serious the Huawei issue is – and it seems fractures are only going to get worse.
The Conservatives have always known that allowing Chinese technology providers to build Britain’s networks would be controversial, hence the amount of provisions they have made each step of the way to convince parliament that this is what we need.
Some of this has been done by way of legal assurances. For instance, the contract was signed off on the condition that Huawei kept out of Britain’s most sensitive security areas. And, anticipating the revolt, the Government claimed there would be a new bill to address concerns around how long Huawei can manage our networks.
None of this stopped Tuesday’s events, however, and MPs have called it merely a “first showing” in the war against Huawei. Culture Minister Matt Warman responded that the rebel warnings had been heard “loud and clear”. “Loud” is certainly what we can expect much more of, as there will be future attempts to push a bill through.
What’s most interesting about the Huawei fight is that it exposes how much matters of defence and security can throw into jeopardy the Tories’ majority, not least because the substantial numbers of backbenchers with military backgrounds (Duncan Smith, Davis and Ellwood, for instance). If the government does not address their objections sensibly, it is not immune to defeat.
The events have also highlighted potential problems for trade agreements, with some MPs worried that Huawei has isolated us from major allies such as Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand (all of which have banned Huawei and condemned the UK’s decision to use the technology). Duncan Smith complained “[w]e have no friends out there any more on [the Huawei] issue, and he is probably right.
The worst international outcome, of course, is the impact of Huawei on the UK’s “special relationship” with America. Trump consistently told Boris Johnson not to move ahead with the contract, and was apparently apoplectic when he ignored this advice. Can the damage be undone with a new bill? One suspects not; that Trump will punish us for what he perceives as a monumental betrayal.
This battle will continue to play out, though may not get the coverage it fully deserves – as coronavirus absorbs the nation’s attention. The matter is one of utmost importance, however, as to our future safety and economic performance. It will exacerbate Tory tensions and showcase any weaknesses in the UK’s knowledge around technology (hence why we had to use Huawei in the first place). But the Tories will plough on, perhaps having invested too much physical and political capital to step back, and take stock of the situation.
As Paul Goodman put it in his January article, it is difficult to know whether Huawei is good for the country; “[w]e don’t have the technical knowledge – and doubt whether the politicians who sound off on the matter one way or the other do so either”. Personally, I find it incredibly hard to imagine what this technology is going to look like, and when I have asked others I have only got vague responses about “the internet of things” and “driverless cars” – the latter of which begs the deeper question of whether humanity needs all of this.
At the very least, given the increasing dominance of China on the world stage, as well as its terrible treatment of Uighur Muslims, we cannot simply go blind into the Huawei issue. Troublemaking Tories are no bad thing.