A group of senior Conservatives have turned on Boris Johnson over his decision to allow Chinese tech giant Huawei a place in the UK’s 5G telecoms network, saying that only “trusted” companies should be involved in the sensitive project.
Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith warned that the UK was alone among Western allies in letting Huawei into its systems and risked “turning out to be the mugs in this game”.
Donald Trump was reportedly “apoplectic” when the prime minister informed him last week of the decision, which the US vice president, Mike Pence, said on Friday could block the way to a US-UK trade deal because of Washington’s concern about the security implications of Huawei’s close links with the communist government in Beijing.
In a letter to all Tory MPs, the six senior Conservatives, who include four former cabinet ministers, said they were “working to find a better solution” for the development of 5G, which promises hugely increased capacity in mobile communications and will underpin the introduction of artificial-intelligence technologies in the UK.
The signatories – former cabinet ministers Sir Iain, Owen Paterson, David Davis and Damian Green, along with Bob Seely and the defence committee chair, Tobias Ellwood – said: “We are seeking to identify a means by which we ensure that only trusted vendors are allowed as primary contractors into our critical national infrastructure.
“Trusted vendors would be companies from countries that have fair market competition, rule of law, respect human rights, data privacy and non-coercive government agencies.”
They called on the government to rule out technology from “untrusted, high-risk vendors” in the UK’s infrastructure, or at least to ensure that future legislation includes “sunset clauses” to limit the length of time such companies can be used.
The National Security Council last month ruled that Huawei was a “high-risk vendor” but agreed that it could bid for up to 35 per cent of contracts for “non-core” elements of the 5G project, such as antennae and base stations, where security agencies believe any risk can be mitigated.
Mr Johnson was warned that freezing Huawei out could delay the introduction of 5G by up to three years at a cost of tens of billions of pounds to the economy.
However, Sir Iain said ministers had been given “a hospital pass” by civil servants who told them there was no other option than going ahead with the Chinese firm.
“If they are not a trusted vendor, if – as the foreign secretary said at the dispatch box – China is considered to be an aggressor in these matters, constantly attacking our systems alongside Russia, and they wouldn’t have anything to do with Russian technology, then surely the same principle must apply to China,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“We have got no friends out there any longer on this issue. Australia, I’m told, had a go at the foreign secretary about this decision when he went out there, New Zealand is against it, Canada is against it, America’s against it. The Five Eyes are all against it.
“France has made a decision not to have Huawei in their systems. Even Vietnam for goodness’ sake has said ‘no’ to Huawei. India has said ‘no’ to Huawei.
“Our problem is that at the moment we seem to be out on a limb on this one. Where we think we can mitigate, nobody else thinks you can mitigate.”
Sir Iain said there must not be a trade-off between the security of UK citizens and networks and the money that might be saved by opting for Huawei technology.
He dismissed the government’s case that a “market failure” meant there were no alternative vendors from trusted countries able to supply the same tech at a competitive price, insisting that other suppliers could deliver within a couple of years.
In addition, he accused the Chinese authorities of systematically subsidising Huawei in order to allow it to undercut rivals and buy its way into the market for highly sensitive communications kit.
“This is not about money any longer,” he said. “Yes, you want a system that works and not to pay too much, but the truth is security and protection of the UK is the absolute number-one priority for any government.
“You can mitigate, but is mitigation the same as protection? I don’t think so. I don’t want limited damage – I want no damage.”
Although Mr Trump has so far remained publicly silent on the UK’s decision to go against his warnings not to involve Huawei, Mr Pence said on Friday that the White House was “profoundly disappointed”.
Pressed on whether the Huawei decision could be a deal-breaker in Brexit trade talks, Mr Pence told CNBC: “We’ll see. We’ll see if it is.”
He said: “We are profoundly disappointed because, look, when I went at the president’s direction in September I met with Prime Minister Johnson and I told him the moment the UK is out of Brexit we were willing to begin to negotiate a free-trade arrangement with the UK.
“But we just don’t believe that utilising the assets, the technology of Huawei is consistent with the security or privacy interests of the UK, of the United States, and it remains a real issue between our two countries.”
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