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Boris Johnson forced to reduce Huawei’s role in UK’s 5G networks

Dan Sabbagh
Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

Boris Johnson has been forced to cave into to Conservative backbench rebels opposed to the presence of Huawei in 5G networks and has drawn up plans to reduce the Chinese company’s involvement to zero by 2023.

The prime minister’s retreat is designed to stave off what could have been an embarrassing defeat when his existing proposal to reduce Huawei to a 35% market share was to be voted on in the Commons.

Although Johnson boasts an 80 strong majority, the number of Conservative MPs willing to rebel on the issue is now estimated to be 50 – enough in theory to defeat the government – as anti-Chinese sentiment hardens in the light of the coronavirus crisis.

The mooted retreat will delight the White House which has been relentlessly campaigning against Huawei, but is likely to provoke a hostile reaction from Beijing, which has believed the UK was open to inward investment until now.

The original plan was signed off as recently as January with the support of Britain’s intelligence agencies. They argued that any risks that Huawei equipment could be exploited for mass surveillance could be contained.

But political concerns about the Chinese company lingered. The rebels forced a vote on an unrelated telecoms bill in early March, and 38 Conservative MPs voted with the opposition after Johnson refused to slash Huawei’s market share to zero.

At the time, that was not enough to defeat No 10 but sources close to the rebels said a growing number of the 2019 intake of MPs were ready to vote against the government, in a sign of escalating geo-political tension with China.

As the coronavirus crisis worsened, China has been accused of not being transparent about the early phases of the disease – while tension has also risen further as Beijing has recently threatened to impose a new national security law on Hong Kong.

Senior ministers also want to reduce the UK’s economic dependance on China for essential goods in the light of the crisis and have begun to draw up “Project Defend” aimed at boosting British self sufficiency in strategic medical and technological sectors – following warnings from intelligence agencies that the UK needed to reassess its relationship with China.

Downing Street declined to comment although sources said the reports of the Johnson plan were accurate. But last night one of the rebel leaders, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, welcome the change of heart. “This is very good news and I hope and believe it will be the start of a complete and thorough review of our dangerous dependency on China.”