Is Boris Johnson about to fail his first big test?* Reports suggest that he is about to give the Chinese technology company Huawei the contract to install at least parts of the UK’s upcoming 5G network.
This would be an appalling decision. Huawei is not so much a company as an arm of the Chinese state. Its purpose in embedding itself in the communications systems of other countries is to extend the power of the Chinese communist party into those countries for the purposes of surveillance and possibly even sabotage.
Britain’s intelligence services appear to be divided about the risks this would pose to Britain. GCHQ, which has the most sophisticated telecoms expertise in the UK, is reportedly aghast, as well it might be. The Times has reported that tests GCHQ conducted on Huawei devices had produced “alarming results”, and that a senior source there said said handing Huawei such access would be akin to “letting a fox loose in a chicken coop”.
Moreover, most of the UK’s “Five Eyes” security partners — America, Australia and New Zealand, though as yet not Canada — have banned Huawei from their 5G networks.
The security service MI5, however, is reportedly more sanguine, claiming that the most sensitive parts of the UK network can be isolated from Huawei technology which would be confined to less sensitive areas.
As numerous informed individuals in both Britain and the US have warned, however, this is nonsense as Huawei cannot be thus isolated within the same network. Once inside, as the chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee and former army officer Tom Tugendhat has warned, the effect would be the same as “nesting a dragon”.
It is unclear why MI5 is so sanguine about Huawei. The Treasury and the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, are also pushing the MI5/Treasury line.
This is all in the face of increasingly desperate warnings about the dangers of Huawei from US President Donald Trump, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and in a letter from three Republican senators:
“This letter represents a genuine plea from one ally to another. We do not want to feed post-Brexit anxieties by threatening a potential U.S.-U.K. free trade agreement when it comes to Congress for approval. Nor would we want to have to review U.S.-U.K. intelligence sharing,” wrote Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.). “The facts on Huawei are clear. We hope that your government will make the right decision and reject Huawei’s inclusion in its 5G infrastructure.”
It appears the British officials in favour of Huawei believe this is merely Trumpian bluster. They are mistaken.
The US security establishment believes that China is engaged in a kind of hi-tech colonialism which threatens the west, and Huawei is one of its principal weapons of conquest. Since they believe this, it is unlikely that the US would want to tie itself, either through trade or intelligence sharing, to a UK that had turned into the weak link in the western defence chain.
Indeed, according to the Washington Free Beacon, legislation is currently circulating in Congress that would “prohibit the sharing of United States intelligence with countries that permit operation of Huawei fifth-generation telecommunications technology within their borders”.
So why does Boris Johnson reportedly want to give Huawei the green light? One suspects that with this particular prime minister political considerations supersede everything else.
Perhaps he is sensitive to the charge that he is in Trump’s pocket. Or perhaps he thinks he has to deliver what he promised in the Conservatives’ election manifesto, to deliver “gigabit-capable” broadband services to the entire country by 2025. And 5G is already being rolled out, with telecoms operators agitating to use Huawei’s equipment. So the costs of shutting out the company are rising by the day.
If that’s the main issue, then someone should remind Boris Johnson that a manifesto commitment is not a mandate. It cannot bind a government, for the very good reason that it is only when in office that a prime minister has access to all the information necessary to make an informed decision in the best interests of the country. And those best interests mean national security must always take precedence over costs.
Last year, the UK National Security Council agreed to allow Huawei to supply 5G technology after a meeting in which five Cabinet members raised objections.The decision was reportedly forced through on the casting vote of the prime minister at the time, Theresa May.
The NSC is meeting again today to decide this issue. What will Boris Johnson do?
*Update: Yup, he failed it.