UK ministers are working on possible concessions to their plan to use Huawei technology in Britain’s 5G mobile phone networks, amid pressure from rebel Conservatives and US officials who want to prohibit the Chinese telecoms equipment maker’s kit.
On Tuesday, 36 Tory MPs voted against the government as Conservative grandees tried unsuccessfully to change the law to exclude Huawei equipment from British telecoms networks after 2022.
The Tory rebellion — the biggest against Boris Johnson since his election victory in December — is rooted in the same concerns that US president Donald Trump has about Huawei: that Beijing could use the Chinese company to spy on western countries.
The Conservatives opposed to Huawei described Tuesday’s rebellion as a “warning shot”, adding that they were confident of defeating the government in another vote on the Chinese company when MPs scrutinise the telecoms security bill later this year.
The rebels are furious at the decision by the prime minister’s National Security Council in January to authorise the use of Huawei equipment in the UK’s 5G networks, although ministers placed a 35 per cent market share cap on the company.
Ministers are now looking at ways to make concessions to the rebel Tories without committing to stripping Huawei out of UK telecoms networks, which they said was impossible, even over a long period of time.
“If they push for zero per cent market share [for Huawei], that is asking us to go against the National Security Council decision and the prime minister does not want to change that,” said one minister. “We agreed to a cap, not a ban, and we have to work around that.”
The government’s strategy is to find ways to address the rebel Tories’ security concerns about Huawei that fall short of a ban. “If you can’t cut Huawei out [of UK telecoms networks], you have to make it more trusted,” said one British security official.
Possible concessions by ministers include toughening governance arrangements on Huawei — for instance, imposing bigger sanctions if it fails to address criticisms made by a UK oversight board which monitors testing of the company’s kit before approving its use in British telecoms networks.
Another option would be to give Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, stronger powers to impose security measures on telecoms companies using Huawei kit.
However, the rebel Conservatives are eyeing more draconian steps against Huawei.
First, the Tory MPs are considering amending the telecoms security bill to include a date by which telecoms companies could no longer install equipment in their networks from suppliers deemed to be “high risk vendors” by the National Cyber Security Centre, a branch of the signals intelligence agency GCHQ.
Second, the rebel Conservatives are contemplating amending the legislation to include a date by which telecoms companies must remove Huawei kit from their networks.
One leading rebel Tory said that Tuesday’s vote — where the government’s parliamentary majority was slashed from 80 to 24 — would embolden other opponents, including the US.
“I think we’re going to hear more pressure, not less, from the Americans — both in the Trump administration and Capitol Hill,” said the MP.
The UK telecoms industry is alarmed at the rebel Tories’ initiative, and executives fear their investment programmes might be derailed if Mr Johnson is forced to change his plans to use Huawei in 5G networks.
The sector is striving to meet government targets to upgrade the UK’s telecoms networks by 2025, while complying with the 35 per cent cap set by ministers for Huawei’s market share in 5G and ultrafast fixed line broadband.
“The 2025 ambition’s already a massive stretch,” said one telecoms industry executive. “It’ll be impossible if they reduce the [market share] cap.”
Huawei has repeatedly said it is a private company and not subject to Chinese state interference.
Victor Zhang, a Huawei vice-president, said: “The government took an evidence-based decision in January, and the industry and experts agreed, a ban on Huawei would leave Britain less secure, less productive and less innovative . . . We look forward to playing our part in delivering 5G broadband to every corner of the country as fast as possible.”
Washington, along with western allies, is currently focusing its lobbying efforts on Huawei to finding ways to nurture alternative suppliers to the Chinese company for telecoms equipment, although this initiative is a long-term project.
Since Mr Johnson’s Huawei decision, the US and UK have had constructive discussions on issues including how to “prop up” Huawei’s rivals — notably Ericsson and Nokia — so as to make them more competitive, according to a Whitehall official.
Washington continues to voice “strong expressions of disapproval” about Mr Johnson’s Huawei decision, said another UK official.
But UK security officials have been frustrated by the lack of any new evidence to back US warnings that the risks of using Huawei technology cannot be mitigated.
John Sawers, former chief of the UK Secret Intelligence Service, said members of the “five eyes” security alliance had been discussing the threat posed by Huawei for the past 15 years, and that Britain had developed expertise in securing its telecoms networks — notably through operating an oversight laboratory for Huawei technology in Banbury, Oxfordshire.
“We’re taking the stuff apart before we put it in there in the first place, we’re monitoring it . . . and we have much better coverage than any other western country including, I might say, the United States, for protecting ourselves against the threat of espionage from Chinese-made equipment,” said Sir John.