Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday faces his first party rebellion over his government’s decision to allow China’s Huawei to have a role in building Britain’s 5G phone network.
Huawei, the world’s biggest producer of telecoms equipment, has been caught in a stand-off between Washington and Beijing after the United States accused it of spying on Western secrets, allegations which the company has denied.
Britain decided in January to allow Huawei into what the government said were non-sensitive parts of the country’s 5G network, capping its involvement at 35%.
This angered the United States, which wants to exclude Huawei from the West’s next-generation communications systems and has urged Britain to rethink.
A group of Johnson’s Conservatives, which the rebels say number anything from 30 to 50 lawmakers, oppose the decision.
Some plan to back an amendment to the Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill to ensure that companies termed by British security experts as “high-risk vendors” – such as Huawei – are stripped out of networks completely by the end of 2022.
High-profile rebel David Davis said the hope was that an “emblematic” vote on the proposed amendment would spur the government to enter further discussions. If not, he said, the rebels would try to force the government’s hand at a later date.
The government said it did not want high-risk vendors to have any role, but in a market dominated by three players, Huawei, Sweden’s Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia , some network operators were relying on Huawei.
“We would like to get to the point where we won’t need to have any high risk vendors at all,” digital minister Oliver Dowden told parliament.
Conservative lawmaker Iain Duncan Smith, who put forward the amendment, said he wanted a clear timetable from the government on its plan to completely remove high-risk vendors, and if he did not get this he would push ahead with the vote.
“I am always flexible on the date, providing the intent and commitment to eradicate the involvement of high risk vendors from our system, across the board, full stop,” he said.
Dowden said the government would not agree to a timetable on Tuesday but would work with international partners to increase the choice of vendors during this parliament, which is due to end in 2024.
The Conservative rebels acknowledge that they do not have the numbers to force a change to government policy. But they hope to fire a sizeable warning shot across the newly-installed government’s bows and influence Johnson to take a harder line.
Mike Rake, the former chairman of broadband and mobile company BT and an adviser to Huawei, said the Chinese firm has a vital role in building the 5G network Britain needs.
“Any attempt to further restrict Huawei 5G equipment, or to remove existing 4G equipment, will not only incur very significant costs but prejudice trade relationships with China and will significantly set back the government’s broadband ambitions,” he said in an open letter.
“This, in turn, will further damage our competitiveness as an economy at what is a critical moment.”
Britain is in the process of negotiating new trading relationships, having left the European Union.