Knife-edge votes and rebel plots were the bread and butter of the last Parliament, but Boris Johnson’s landslide election in December and 80 strong majority has not left him invincible.
Yesterday, the government only narrowly defeated an amendment to the Telecoms Security Bill, tabled by Sir Iain Duncan Smith, by 306 votes to 282. Thirty-eight Conservative MPs defied the whip in order to seek greater assurances on limiting the role of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei in building the UK’s new 5G network infrastructure.
Led by Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the rebels included former cabinet ministers David David, Liam Fox, Damian Green, Esther McVey, Owen Paterson and Sir John Redwood. Sir Graham Brady, Chair of the 1922 committee also voted for the amendment along with Tom Tugendhat and Tobias Ellwood, the respective Chairs of the Defence and Foreign Affairs select committees.
It was not just the old guard, the newly elected MP for Totnes, Anthony Mangnall, was there along with a number of the 2015 and 2017 intake. Another 22 Conservatives were absent from the vote.
The scale of the rebellion will be of some concern to the government as they draw up further legislation, with a full Telecoms Security Bill to be brought before the summer.
Concerns appear to have been heard “loud and clear” according to Digital Infrastructure Minister Matt Warman, who has pledged to “engage intensively with colleagues” as the rebels stated that this particular vote was merely a “warning shot”. The rebels fear that Huawei is effectively a front for the Chinese state, and that there are serious national security concerns in allowing the company to be so involved in critical national infrastructure. They have already indicated that they will seek to amend future legislation with the aim of having Huawei removed entirely from the 5G network by the end of 2022.
Downing Street had held meetings on Tuesday with the rebels and given a series of last-minute concessions in an attempt to address concerns: Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has committed to working with the US and other allies in Five Eyes to develop alternatives to Huawei by the middle of 2024. He also agreed that for the first time in history, MPs on select committees would be able to directly question security officials about the strategies in place to mitigate the risks – four of the rebels sit on the Foreign Affairs select committee and three on Defence.
However, Dowden repeatedly refused to commit to a sunset clause with a firm date commitment that would over time reduce Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G network to zero, telling Parliament: “We’re not in a position today to set out a specific date or timetable for reaching no high-risk vendors, that would require a new decision to be taken by the National Security Council.”
Officials from the National Cyber Security Centre at GCHQ met the Conservative rebels on Monday in an attempt to reassure them about the safeguards that would be in place – somewhat of a backtrack from statements by NCSC’s technical director Ian Levy who admitted that they were “a high-risk vendor” and that they had “never trusted Huawei”only back in January.
Huawei deny that they could be asked to spy for Beijing, with vice-president Victor Zhang saying that he had been “disappointed to hear some groundless accusations asserted” and that the government had “concluded that Huawei should not be banned on cyber-security grounds and two parliamentary committees have done the same and agreed.”
During yesterday’s debate, Sir Iain Duncan Smith dismissed the assurances from GCHQ, suggesting that the claim that they could secure the 5G network from Chinese espionage was to go against all the advice of the UK’s allies in the intelligence-sharing Five Eyes.
Speaking in the Commons, Sir Iain accused the Chinese government of spending 20 years “underbidding” other technology firms until Huawei dominated the market.
Saying that government ministers had stated that Huawei was a private company, Sir Iain disagreed: “Let’s be very clear, this company is not a private company. It ends up being essentially almost completely owned by Chinese trade unions and they, of course, are locked into the Chinese government. This is a Chinese wholly owned organisation.”
Sir Iain also raised the concerns of the UK’s main allies: “The reality is that when it comes to security versus cost, my view is security wins every single time because I worry when we start compromising security. We have no friends out there any more on this issue, whether it’s the Canadians, the Americans, the Australians, the New Zealanders, they all disagree with us… the Japanese are absolutely seething with us”
“We need to know that it is the government’s intention to rid ourselves of high-risk vendors such as Huawei… and to commence the beginnings of that retraction before the end of this parliament.”
Sir Liam Fox, the former International Trade Secretary, echoed Sir Iain’s views saying: “In order to achieve greater trade with China, we do not need to sacrifice our national security by including Huawei as part of that risk.”
“The US is going to get 5G without Huawei because they will not bring that risk into their own national security, so what is wrong with the United Kingdom having to wait a little longer to get 5G?”
Tom Tugendhat, Chair of the Foreign Affairs select committee, said that he was “opposed to the government’s decision on Huawei’s involvement in our telecoms. There are alternatives as Australia, France, Czech Republic and even Vietnam show. There’s no point in taking back control from Brussels only to hand it over to Beijing.”
Labour and the SNP voted with the rebels, but five DUP MPs voted with the government.
The list of rebels
- Bob Blackman MP
- Sir Graham Brady MP
- Andrew Bridgen MP
- Fiona Bruce MP
- Sir Christopher Chope MP
- Damian Collins MP
- Dr James Davies MP
- Rt Hon David Davis MP
- Richard Drax MP
- Rt Hon Sir Iain Duncan Smith MP
- Rt Hon Tobias Ellwood MP
- Rt Hon Dr Liam Fox MP
- Rt Hon Mark Francois MP
- James Gray MP
- Rt Hon Damian Green MP
- Philip Hollobone MP
- Rt Hon David Jones MP
- Tim Loughton MP
- Craig Mackinlay MP
- Anthony Mangnall MP
- Stephen McPartland MP
- Rt Hon Esther McVey MP
- David Morris MP
- Anne-Marie Morris MP
- Sheryll Murray MP
- Sir Bob Neill MP
- Dr Matthew Offord MP
- Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP
- Andrew Percy MP
- Rt Hon Sir John Redwood MP
- Andrew Rosindell MP
- Bob Seely MP
- Henry Smith MP
- Sir Robert Syms MP
- Tom Tugendhat MP
- David Warburton MP
- Bill Wiggin MP
- William Wragg MP
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