The Huawei decision is a lose-lose situation for the government. Be prepared for more post-Brexit

This is one of many difficult trade and economic decisions that will become the norm now the UK striking out on its own

Chris Stevenson
Monday 27 January 2020 19:19 GMT
Huawei and the UK's 5G network explained

When it comes to the issue of Huawei, the government is in a difficult position. The use of the Chinese company and the security risks that might come with it has put the UK between a rock and a hard place.

It is easy to blame Boris Johnson, as Labour leadership contender Keir Starmer was quick to do, accusing the prime minister of “doing a runner” over the issue. “There are so many questions that are unanswered,” Starmer told Sky News. “He’s done a bit of a runner, has Boris Johnson. He’s not around and he’s not leading from the front. He needs to come to parliament, make a statement and face questions about this.”

While there has been reason to doubt Johnson's leadership credentials, and a number of people do, this would be a difficult issue for anyone in No 10. A paucity of communication has been a feature of the Johnson government and so it should come as little surprise that that stance has continued – even if clear and transparent communication on such a divisive issue would be preferable.

The UK is stuck between the US and the EU, with trade negotiations with both either set to start or on the horizon. Reports suggest that Johnson's government is about to green-light a restricted role for Huawei in Britain’s 5G network, while imposing a new cap on the market share the Chinese telecoms company can take in the UK. This is closer to the EU position, which officials are believed to favour, calling on national governments to impose stricter limits on telecom operators and partial bans on "high risk" suppliers. The UK is not alone in its hand-wringing about what to do, with Germany also in the middle of intense discussions about whether to allow the company into their network.

As for Washington, officials have been clear that they see Huawei as a threat to national security, believing the company's involvement could allow China to spy on communications. Both the US and Australia have already banned Huawei from being involved in their 5G networks. Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, has said the UK faces a "momentous decision" on Tuesday, warning: "The truth is that only nations able to protect their data will be sovereign." The US and UK are both part of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance (also including Australia, Canada and New Zealand) and Washington has made sure to play up the possible detrimental effect of a Huawei decision on information sharing.

Falling in line behind the US would normally be an easier step to take for the government, but ministers are aware of how crucial the network will be to the UK's future economy and there are few other options in the government's sights that have Huawei's expertise. Another easy get out would have been if UK intelligence said that Huawei posed too big a risk. Sir Andrew Parker, head of MI5, and the intelligence-gathering GCHQ have advised ministers that any security risks can be managed, provided Huawei’s role is restricted to “non core” parts of Britain’s new mobile network.

British MP Tom Tugendhat – who has been referenced by Pompeo as "getting it right" in his opposition to Huawei – highlights how opinion is still split, while Johnson's cabinet is also unanimous in its support for the Chinese company's involvement. As with everything at the moment, the issue has been linked to the "sovereignty" of the UK. Tugendhat has said that "sovereignty means control of data as much as land". Robert Buckland, the justice secretary, making the point that the UK would not be leaned on by the US, said the decision would be based on “our own sovereign right to choose”.

Linking the decision to Brexit-related language is deliberate and in my view, over the top. But the Huawei case is one of many difficult trade and economic decisions that will become the norm now that we are striking out on our own. The government must not shy away from making tough calls if it believes they ​are in the best interests of Britain.

The Huawei decision will leave at least one possible trading partner upset, whichever way it lands. But Britain is no longer in a position where easy decisions are an option.

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