Boris Johnson stressed he would not “jeopardise” the UK’s security relationship with the US, as he faced pressure from Washington over the possible involvement of Chinese tech giant Huawei in the 5G network.
The United States warned that British sovereignty would be put at risk by allowing the firm to play a role in the UK’s 5G infrastructure, while senior Tories have also raised concerns about the looming decision on whether to allow Huawei equipment to be used.
The Prime Minister claimed it would be possible to give Britons access to “fantastic technology” while also protecting “key partnerships with other security powers”.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the choice facing the National Security Council as “momentous” in a last-ditch plea to ministers who are expected to make the call on Tuesday.
The Financial Times reported the meeting is expected to agree the company can play a restricted role, with ministers looking to impose a cap on its market share to prevent over-reliance on its equipment.
The US administration has previously urged allies in the Five Eyes intelligence community – made up of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – not to use Huawei, claiming it would be a security risk – something the company vehemently denies.
But Mr Johnson told reporters: “The way forward for us clearly is to have a system that delivers for people in this country the kind of consumer benefits that they want through 5G technology… but does not in any way compromise our critical national infrastructure, our security or jeopardise our ability to work together with other intelligence powers around the world.
“The Five Eyes security relationships we have, we’ve got to keep them strong and safe.”
He added: “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have technological progress here in the UK, allow consumers, businesses in the UK to have access to fantastic technology, fantastic communications, but also protect our security interests and protect our key partnerships with other security powers around the world.”
Mr Pompeo, who is due to visit the UK later in the week, said: “The UK has a momentous decision ahead on 5G.
“British MP Tom Tugendhat gets it right: ‘The truth is that only nations able to protect their data will be sovereign’.”
He retweeted a comment by Mr Tugendhat, chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in the last parliament, in which the MP said: “The real costs will come later if we get this wrong and allow Huawei to run 5G.”
In an urgent Commons question on Monday, Mr Tugendhat warned that the UK should not be “nesting the dragon”.
“If even the Communist Party in Vietnam rejects it, deciding to set up its own network and reject Huawei, perhaps we should beware of strangers and the gifts they bear,” he said.
Washington’s ambassador to the UK, Woody Johnson, said Mr Tugendhat’s point was “undeniable”, adding that “doing 5G right goes beyond data ‘mitigation’ – it’s about national sovereignty”.
Senior Tories – including former Cabinet ministers – also voiced concerns about the imminent decision.
Former defence secretary Penny Mordaunt said ministers must decide “what are the standards, values and reliability we want from any company our national infrastructure depends upon?”.
But she acknowledged that the decision must also weigh up what the alternative would be if the UK rejected Huawei’s involvement.
On the issue of security, she told the PA news agency: “I don’t think anyone doubts that there are concerns, what is in question is whether they should be offset against other issues.
“And that is about more than the technical ability to limit the scope of their involvement. It is also about values and trust.”
Former Brexit secretary David Davis said that although the US had “sometimes been heavy handed in their dealings with the Chinese” they “have a point” about Huawei.
He claimed potential vulnerabilities could be exploited by Beijing later down the line.
He told PA: “The problem with this is that it is irreversible. Once you have done it, the technology is not designed to be ‘plug and play’ – where you can pull out a Huawei unit and put in a Samsung one – it’s effectively proprietary, a bit like having an Apple plug.
“So it’s quite close to an irreversible mistake, and it’s also close to a mistake you wouldn’t know if you’d made it.”
Former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt warned against a “dependency” on a Chinese company in delivering 5G technology.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I must admit I always wondered whether it was wise to allow ourselves to become technologically dependent on another country, whichever country, for something as critical as 5G technology.”
Professor Malcolm Chalmers, the deputy director of defence and security think tank the Royal United Services Institute, said he did not believe the US would cut off intelligence-sharing if Huawei was given a role in the UK’s 5G network.
“When the dust settles, I find it very hard to believe that the US would want to cut off its access to UK-generated intelligence as a response to a decision of this nature. I don’t take that threat very seriously,” he said.
Last year, the US imposed trade restrictions on Huawei over concerns about the company’s security and ties to the Chinese government.
Allegations that its telecommunications equipment could be used to spy on people have been repeatedly denied by the firm.