Is Boris Johnson's Huawei decision a rare example of evidence based policymaking?

The spooks say the risks can be managed while the economic damage of removing Huawei would have been huge. New restrictions have been placed on the company but will they buy off the critics? 

James Moore
Chief Business Commentator
Tuesday 28 January 2020 13:01 GMT
Here to stay: Huawei will have a role in Britains 5G mobile networks
Here to stay: Huawei will have a role in Britains 5G mobile networks (AFP/Getty)

Purely from the perspective of UK plc, Boris Johnson has, for once, made the right decision by allowing Huawei to continue to supply parts to Britain’s 5G mobile network.

The controversial company is already here in 4G, and the networks want that to remain so it can build on top of what already exists. Cutting it out would have proven ruinously expensive and time consuming, delaying the tech’s arrival by potentially two or three years.

In the public mind 5G means faster browsing for a fee. But the applications go much further than that and the delay caused by Huawei’s departure could have caused the UK serious economic harm.

It’s hard to imagine a worse time for that given the walls the government is bent upon throwing up between this country and its biggest trading partner, the EU, with all the economic disruption that will follow.

There’s a sop to the Huawei’s opponents, who worry about the influence the Chinese state has over the company (it denies any). Huawei has been branded a “high risk vendor”. Already out of the sensitive network cores, there are new restrictions being placed on what it can do in the periphery, with the masts and suchlike.

A limit of 35 per cent has been placed on how much it can supply to each network. Huawei will also be excluded from areas near military bases and nuclear sites.

You can probably file those under “public relations”.

The limit? OK, but Huawei is still in. The ban near bases, sure, but again, Huawei is still in.

The US has been making a fuss because it fears the lines between the 5G periphery, where the company is allowed to operate, and the cores will, as this potentially revolutionary technology develops, blur.

The restrictions wouldn’t appear to do much to address those concerns, motivated as they are by politics and America's rivalry with China. Ditto Johnson’s Tory critics.

The thing is, the UK’s intelligence community has said that while there are risks, they can be managed. Network operators will tell you much the same thing.

Johnson appears to have listened to them, and taken into account the economic imperative in making this decision too.

This could, dare I say, be an example of something that a Conservative Party, hollowed out and re-shaped in his image, had apparently abandoned: pragmatic, evidence based policymaking.

A little more of that, and Britain mightn't be headed for the fall Johnson’s critics fear, with good reason, that he’s setting the nation up for. But I’m not holding my breath, particularly as he may now feel the need to throw a few more bones to his some of his more lumpen critics.

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