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PM could face political problems down the line over Huawei decision

“No good options,” is how one a senior government described the Huawei dilemma for the government to me this week.

And that was exactly the tone ministers set as they in one breath announced that the Chinese telecoms company would be allowed to help build the 5G mobile network and in the next began listing how they intended to mitigate the risks.

The UK government decided to designate Huawei a “high risk” vendor as it announced a desire to reduce its market share over time by working with allies to build up other suppliers.

Huawei: The risks explained

Huawei was to be excluded from supply kit from sensitive locations such as military bases and nuclear sites, while its share of the new network would be capped at 35%.

Left unchecked Huawei’s share would have been nearly double that in three years.


The message was clear. This was an uneasy trade off but “market failure” had forced the UK government into this position.

Excluding Huawei from the next generation of mobile networks would lead to significant delays in rolling out faster and more reliable mobile internet around the country.

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The economy would have taken an economic hit of “tens of billions” and consumers would have lost out.

These were unpalatable realities for a prime minister who promised to roll out super fast broadband, boost productivity and level up regions across the UK.

Image: Boris Johnson faced opposition to the move from senior Tory MPs

Ministers said “market failure” left them with no option but to let Huawei – which has already been supplying kit to the UK for 15 years – help build the next generation of mobile technology, while restricting its involvement.

The National Security Council probably concluded this was the least worst option for a government between a rock and a hard place.

The government has taken steps to mitigate the security risk from Huawei – it must also try to mitigate the political and diplomatic fall-out.

The most pressing concern is Washington, which has publicly lobbied London to exclude Huawei entirely from the network.

Mr Johnson left it to his foreign secretary and other ministers to explain and defend his decision to MPs and the public but behind the door of Number 10 the prime minister spoke to Donald Trump to inform him of his decision, while also making the right noises around the US president’s proposals to develop alternative suppliers.

Explained: Why 5G and Huawei matter

After the call, Downing Street said the prime minister and Donald Trump “underlined the importance of like-minded countries working together to diversify the market and break the dominance of a small number of companies”.

A Trump administration official said the US was “disappointed” with the decision, while some of his Republican colleagues were quick to condemn the UK.

Senator Tom Cotton, a member of the intelligence select committee, said Britain’s decision would be like “allowing the KGB to build a telephone network during the Cold War” as he called on the US to conduct “a thorough review of US-UK intelligence sharing”.

With Mr Trump yet to make a statement ahead of the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to London this week, the prime minister will be bracing for a potentially awkward meeting on Thursday.

Huawei decision: Sky correspondents share their take

Closer to home too there are nerves around the decision to allow Huawei access to the next generation of telecoms networks.

Some Conservative MPs are uneasy that a “high risk vendor” is getting a foothold into the next generation of mobile technology.

Former Brexit secretary David Davis told the Commons Huawei should be blocked from the network, as other senior Tories – from former defence secretary Penny Mordaunt to former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith – followed suit.

Mr Johnson has a big enough majority not to worry too much for now, but it is the first big decision that has the potential to cause him diplomatic and political problems further down the line.


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