Boris Johnson has avoided his first Commons defeat after Conservative backbenchers rebelled against their government’s decision to allow Huawei a role in the UK’s 5G network.
The prime minister’s 80 strong majority was cut to just 24 as 38 Tory rebel MPs voted for former Conservative party leader Iain Duncan Smith’s amendment to remove the Chinese tech-giant’s equipment from the UK’s 5G network within three years.
With many more Tory MPs abstaining and threatening to join the rebels when a key vote comes before the Commons in the summer, Johnson’s government has effectively been put on warning about the issue.
Rebels have been heard ‘loud and clear’
The government previously described Huawei as a “high risk vendor” when it authorised their involvement in building the UK’s 5G network in January. Today, junior culture minister Matt Warman said the government had heard the rebels “loud and clear” after 282 MPs voted for the amendment, with 306 voting against it.
“The scale of tonight’s revolt is not just evidence of the level of Tory opposition to the Prime Minister’s controversial decision to give the go-ahead to Huawei, it also threatens an even bigger rebellion that could yet scupper the whole policy,” said the BBC’s chief political correspondent Norman Smith.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Six O’Clock News that Tory MPs argued Huawei “was a front for the Chinese state and should be barred from any involvement in the UK’s 5G network.”
Rebels’ ranks swelled with prominent Tories
Adding to the government’s concern will be the fact, said Smith, that “the rebels’ ranks tonight were filled with senior Tories and former cabinet ministers.”
Iain Duncan Smith told the Commons his worries are because “we have no friends out there any more on this issue”, while Liam Fox asked: “So what is wrong with the United Kingdom having to wait a little longer to get 5G, but 5G that will give us security in the long term?”
David Davis warned: “This is not just a telecoms system – it is fundamental. It is the lifeblood of our entire national infrastructure, so, on a security analysis approach, it’s just plum wrong.”
Tory MP Steve Baker backed the government in today’s vote but tweeted his belief that the forthcoming telecommunications bill will need to “exclude them [Huawei] from UK [5G network] by a specified date, strengthening existing government commitments.”
Huawei proud to supply “UK for more than 15 years’
Huawei’s vice president Victor Zhang said the Commons vote against banning his company from the UK’s 5G network was reassuring, and added: “We are proud to have supplied cutting-edge technology to telecoms operators in the UK for more than 15 years and we will build on this strong track record, supporting those customers as they invest in their 5G networks, boosting economic growth and helping the UK continue to compete globally.”
Zhang reminded that the government and two parliamentary committees have “examined the evidence” and concluded Huawei “should not be banned on cyber security grounds”.
He said: “An evidence-based approach is needed, so we were disappointed to hear some groundless accusations asserted. The industry and experts agree that banning Huawei equipment would leave Britain less secure, less productive and less innovative.”
The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “We are pleased the bill continues to make progress.”