Tuesday 28th January 2020
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Boris Johnson is preparing to defy American demand to ban Huawei Technologies from the U.K.’s fifth-generation telecommunications networks, in a decision that risks an angry backlash from within his own ruling Conservative Party. The prime minister’s team will make the decision on Tuesday after a meeting of the NSC, Digital Minister Matt Warman told members of Parliament on Monday.
During an urgent question session on the issue, numerous Conservative MPs raised concerns over Huawei gaining any access to U.K. networks, citing fears that the company could become a long-term security risk for Britain. But Johnson suggested the government can ensure consumer benefits without putting national security in danger, even though the Trump administration has repeatedly warned that Huawei could be vulnerable to Chinese spies.
“We are going to come up with a solution that enables us to achieve both those objectives and that’s the way forward,” Johnson said in a pooled interview earlier on Monday. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have technological progress here in the U.K. -- allow consumers, businesses in the U.K. access to fantastic technology, fantastic communications -- but also protect our security interests and protect our key partnerships with other security powers around the world.” The remarks suggest Johnson is set to grant Huawei partial access to Britain’s telecoms networks, setting up a clash with U.S. President Trump, whose administration has lobbied intensely for Britain to ban Huawei, saying its presence in 5G networks would threaten intelligence-sharing.
“Why do we need high risk vendors in our networks at all?” Conservative MP Bob Seely said. “Whoever controls 5G will affect significantly our rule of law, our data privacy, our security and our freedom to support our allies." The Huawei decision is perilous for Johnson. If he sides with President Trump and bans the company, he risks failing to equip the U.K. with the technology Huawei is well placed to provide and betraying his pledge to voters to spread ultra-fast internet services across the country. If he allows Huawei to go ahead, he faces the potential loss of U.S. intelligence cooperation and an angry backlash from the White House at a time when he’s seeking a trade deal with Britain’s closest ally.
“Any decision that is made will nest a dragon into our critical national infrastructure or not,” influential Tory politician Tom Tugendhat told the Commons on Monday. “This is a decision that we will live with for the next 10, 15 or 20 years.” Former Tory Leader Iain Duncan Smith said that the U.K. was “at war,” in a sense. “There is a cyber war going on in which China is arguably the single biggest participant,” he told the chamber. He urged the government to “reject Huawei immediately.”
Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan, whose department is responsible for telecommunications, told Bloomberg earlier this month that Huawei will be kept out of “critical national infrastructure,” while leaving open the prospect the company can be involved in less sensitive areas. That chimes with the message on Monday from Johnson, who discussed the matter with Trump on Friday. Digital minister Warman was keen to show that the government wants to reduce Britain’s reliance on the Chinese vendor. “There are alternatives to Huawei, and we would of course seek to use them as much as possible,” he said. The government telecoms supply chain review published in July said officials will pursue a diversification strategy to support the growth of new entrants.
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