A Tory rebel amendment designed to ban Huawei from UK mobile networks was narrowly defeated in a parliamentary vote.
A proposed amendment to the Telecoms Infrastructure Bill, which would eventually make it illegal for UK network operators to use equipment provided by high risk vendors, i.e. Huawei, failed to win a majority vote in the House of Commons. But considering how large the Conservative majority is, the fact that it only lost by 24 votes represented a significant wake up call for the government.
In the end 36 Tory MPs rebelled and 22 abstained, and if five DUP MPs hadn’t voted with the government then it would have only taken eight more rebels to swing the result. Among the rebels were some big hitters, including Ian Duncan-Smith, David Davies, Liam Fox, Esther McVey and Mark Francois. Such a close result puts additional pressure on the Prime Minister as the bill passes through the House of Lords and raises the prospect of further rebellions when the specific 5G bill gets read.
In response to the vote Huawei VP Victor Zhang had the following to say: “We were reassured by the UK government’s decision in January that we could continue working with our customers to keep the 5G roll-out on track. It was an evidence-based decision that will result in a more advanced, more secure and more cost-effective telecoms infrastructure.
“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.
“The government has examined the evidence and concluded that Huawei should not be banned on cyber security grounds and two parliamentary committees have done the same and agreed. 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 debate preceding the vote was initiated by Labour MP Chi Onwurah, who stressed her impeccable credentials at some length, before going on to waste everyone’s time by making a series of cheap party political points. There eventually followed some discussion of Huawei’s security status, its links to the Chinese government and Chinese attitudes to international trade in general, all of which have already been discussed extensively elsewhere.
Onwurah’s main concern about the government’s current position on Huawei appeared to be, not that she lacked faith in the assessment of the National Cyber Security Centre, but that the measures recommended to mitigate any risk posed were being insufficiently implemented. It was then the turn of Tory MP Ian Duncan-Smith, sponsor of the amendment, to state his case.
“Let us be absolutely clear at the outset: this company is not a private company,” said IDS. “Ultimately, it is essentially almost completely owned by Chinese trade unions, and they, of course, are completely locked into the Chinese Government. This an organisation wholly owned by China.
“The single biggest problem we have faced is that, nearly two decades ago, the Chinese Government set out to ensure that they dominated the market. As this organisation has access to nigh-on unlimited funds, it has spent that period underbidding every single time in these processes, from 2G through to 4G and now, as we understand it, 5G.
“If we look at this strategy, we see that when this all began, there were something like 12 companies in this marketplace. One by one, they have disappeared. Why have they disappeared? They simply cannot compete with Huawei’s pricing. These telecoms companies have bit by bit found themselves going to the cheapest bidder, providing the technology is as good as the others. By the way, it is certainly not an argument that Huawei has better technology; there is no evidence of that whatsoever.”
The discussion went on for a while in that vein, the central theme being that Huawei only got where it is today by cheating with the help of the Chinese government. That may well be true, but little concrete evidence was presented to support the claims and, furthermore, they are tangential to the matter of security. There was further protectionist muttering from other MPs that eventually rebelled, creating the impression that, for many of them, this was a matter of international trade rather than security.
IDS went on to expose the fragility of his position with the following statement, made after listing the countries that have implemented more severe restrictions on Huawei. “No matter how intelligent, brilliant and great our security and cyber-security services are, how is it that they are right and everybody else is wrong? In fact, at a briefing the other day, I saw them trashing the Australian view of this. I simply say, fine, but the reality is that we are alone on this matter, and I think that that is a very bad place to be in relation to our closest allies when it comes to security.”
Not only does that statement serve to confirm the suspicion that this amendment seeks to relegate technical assessments below political ones, it also chooses to overlook the European consensus that is almost identical to the current UK position. IDS then proceeded to contradict himself by stressing how internationally preeminent the UK’s judgment is on such matters.
This dragged on for a while until DCMS Secretary Oliver Dowden managed to get a word in edgeways. “We looked at this issue over many months and in great technical detail through our telecoms supply chain review,” said Dowden. “This review was informed by technical and security analysis undertaken by GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre. It was the most detailed study of what is needed to protect 5G, anywhere in the world. The recommendations from the review will substantially improve the security and resilience of the UK’s telecoms networks, which are a critical part of our national infrastructure.
“The Government’s decision on high-risk vendors remains. As we have said, we are clear-eyed about the challenges posed by Huawei. That is why the National Security Council has decided that high-risk vendors should be excluded from sensitive and critical parts of networks and that there should be a strict 35% cap on the market share in the rest of the network.
“We will of course keep the 35% cap under review and, over time, our intention is to reduce our reliance on high-risk vendors as the process of market diversification takes place. We want to get to a position where we do not have to use high-risk vendors in our telecoms networks at all, but to do that, we have to work with our Five Eyes and other partners to develop new supply chain capacity in our critical national infrastructure. I can tell the House that we will do that in this Parliament.
The reason IDS and his merry band still voted in favour of their amendment is that they found Dowden’s reassurances to be insufficient, both in terms of substance and timing. It’s hard to imagine what he could have said other than “Oh, alright then, we’ll ban them,” to appease them and that’s where the debate has now been left.
The specific bill addressing 5G networks and high risk vendors is due to be read later this year. It looks like the government has some work to do if it doesn’t want to risk having that bill rejected. But, then again, if PM Johnson is looking for a way to retreat from his previous position in order to placate a US President that seems very likely to be in place for most of this Parliament, then this back bench rebellion might not be half as unwelcome as it seems.