Boris Johnson insisted the decision to allow Huawei to play a limited role in the UK’s 5G infrastructure would not “imperil our relationship” with Donald Trump’s administration as he faced a backlash from Tory MPs and US Republicans.
The Prime Minister defied the president by giving the green light to the Chinese firm despite US warnings that it could hamper intelligence-sharing with Washington.
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, speaking to reporters on his way to London for talks with the Government, warned that the presence of Huawei in a network caused a “real risk” and suggested the UK could “relook” at the decision in the future.
Mr Johnson, who spoke to Mr Trump on Tuesday, said the Government’s decision would not damage the “extremely valuable” security co-operation with the Five Eyes alliance which includes the US.
He told MPs at Prime Minister’s Questions: “I think that it is absolutely vital that people in this country do have access to the best technology available but that we also do absolutely nothing to imperil our relationship with the United States, to do anything to compromise our critical national security infrastructure, or to do anything to imperil our extremely valuable co-operation with Five Eyes security partners.”
Mr Pompeo is flying into Britain on Wednesday night for talks with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Mr Johnson.
According to US media reports, he told journalists on his flight that “our view of Huawei is putting it in your system creates real risk” .
He said Washington would evaluate the UK’s decision and make sure that when American information passes across a network it “is a trusted one”.
The decision has caused deep unease on the Tory benches, with discussion of a possible rebellion when the matter comes to the Commons, although the Prime Minister can normally rely on a comfortable majority.
The UK’s National Security Council (NSC) agreed on Tuesday to allow “high-risk vendors” to play a limited part in building the 5G network.
At a 90-minute meeting, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace argued against the move, according to The Times, but was said to have been a “lone voice”.
Government assurances about the decision have done little to quell what Damian Green, former de facto deputy prime minister under Theresa May, called “widespread (and) strong unease” on the Tory benches.
Ministers have said they will legislate at the “earliest opportunity” to put the new guidance on telecoms providers into law, opening up the prospect of a potentially damaging backbench revolt.
“One of the things that frankly surprised me was the breadth of opposition to the current stance of the Government on the Conservative back benches,” Mr Green told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“We don’t know yet, when push comes to shove and votes happen, how many people will actually put their heads above the parapet but it is very widespread.”
Senior Tory MPs including former leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith and ex-Brexit secretary David Davis are among those to express displeasure.
Mr Trump has refrained from a Twitter outburst on the decision but officials in Washington said they were “disappointed by the UK’s decision”.
“There is no safe option for untrusted vendors to control any part of a 5G network,” an official said.
A series of senior congressional figures spoke out to condemn the move, warning it could damage Mr Johnson’s hopes of a swift post-Brexit trade deal.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a strong supporter of the president, said he was “very concerned” and urged the UK to think again, while Tom Cotton, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, called for a “thorough review” of intelligence-sharing arrangements with the UK.
“I fear London has freed itself from Brussels only to cede sovereignty to Beijing,” said Mr Cotton.
“Allowing Huawei to the build the UK’s 5G networks today is like allowing the KGB to build its telephone network during the Cold War.”
Allowing Huawei to the build the UK’s 5G networks today is like allowing the KGB to build its telephone network during the Cold War. The CCP will now have a foothold to conduct pervasive espionage on British society and has increased economic and political leverage over the UK.
— Tom Cotton (@SenTomCotton) January 28, 2020
The European Union also unveiled security guidelines for the next generation high-speed wireless networks that stop short of banning Huawei, in a further blow to the US campaign against the firm.
Mr Pompeo’s two-day visit is likely to offer the first real indication of the extent of any damage to the so-called special relationship.
The US administration has consistently argued that giving Huawei a role in 5G could allow the Chinese a “back door” into the telecoms network through which they could carry out espionage or cyber attacks.
The Government has acknowledged Huawei is not a “trusted” supplier but argues that by banning it from the most sensitive elements of the network and restricting its involvement to 35%, it can manage the risks.
The clash comes at a sensitive moment in US-UK relations, just as Mr Johnson is hoping to make rapid progress on a trade deal.
The PM appears to have concluded that honouring his general election pledge to “level up” the “left-behind” areas of the country must be the priority.
Rolling out 5G across the country is regarded as key to improving economic performance and excluding Huawei would mean delays and higher costs.