The UK has made a strategic choice to get ‘off the trajectory of ever-increasing dependence’ on China, I revealin the magazine this week. This is important as the UK was about to go over the precipice in terms of dependence on China with the decision to allow Huawei to construct a lasting part of the UK’s 5G network.
That is now not going to happen. Downing Street describes its previous Huawei decision as a ‘legacy issue’, emphasising how no one was particularly comfortable with the compromise they came up with—Huawei’s role would be capped and it would be kept away from ‘the core’ of the network. This is just as well: had Boris Johnson sought to proceed he would almost certainly have lost the vote in the Commons, such is the depth of feeling in the party. If you want a sign of the shift in Tory attitudes to Beijing, just look at how normally cautious MPs are rushing to sign up to Tom Tugendhat and Neil O’Brien’s new China Research Group, which wants a far more critical approach to the issue. As one of those central to party management put it to me before the Dominic Cummings issue arose, the ‘government has to do something different’ on Huawei. With Tory MPs now less inclined to accept the centre’s authority, this is even more the case.
Concern about Huawei goes far deeper than Tory MPs. The US national security establishment has hardened its view on China considerably in the past year and there is now a bipartisan consensus that its rise needs to be checked. As one of those advising Boris Johnson on this matter warns: ‘You can’t be in a situation where, whoever wins in November, our credibility is draining with our most critical ally.’ Combine all of the above with concerns over Beijing’s bullying of Canada and Australia and you have a potent case for changing course.
One of Johnson’s closest political allies tells me: ‘The original plan is dead. It is only a matter of how they configure the shift.’ I am told that the choice now is between a time limit for the use of Huawei kit in 5G infrastructure, or no role at all for the Chinese company — with ‘sentiment shifting to the harder position’.
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