The culture secretary hinted on Tuesday that the government was close to announcing a U-turn on its controversial decision to allow Huawei to supply 5G technology when he said that American sanctions appeared likely to affect the Chinese company.
Oliver Dowden told members of a special defence select committee scrutinising Huawei that an emergency review ordered last month was close to running its course and that a change in policy would probably be necessary.
“Given that those sanctions are targeted at 5G and extensive, it is likely to have an impact on the viability of Huawei as a provider for the 5G network,” the cabinet minister told MPs.
The work is being undertaken by the National Cyber Security Centre, an arm of GCHQ, which was asked in May by Downing Street to examine the effect of a proposed ban on supplying US semiconductors and software to Huawei.
Dowden added that NCSC was “pretty much finished” in terms of determining the technical impact, and the minister said he and the specialists “were going through the final stages of it” to determine the policy response.
Whitehall sources indicate that a particular concern is that Huawei would become reliant on unfamiliar and untested components, which could be exploited for mass or targeted surveillance by Beijing and others.
In January, Boris Johnson had concluded that it would be safe to deploy Huawei in future 5G networks, on the advice of the UK’s intelligence agencies, as long as the Chinese company was declared to be a “high-risk vendor” and therefore subject to a 35% market share cap.
That decision has come under attack from Donald Trump’s White House and a growing group of rebel Conservatives, which want Huawei eliminated from 5G in the UK in two to three years. They argue a Chinese company poses an unacceptable long-term security risk to Western phone networks.
Rebel Conservatives believe they have enough votes to overturn Johnson’s 80-seat majority whenever the new 5G rules are put to the vote in a fresh bill, but they are hoping that Downing Street will capitulate in the coming weeks.
One rebel who sits on the defence committee, the Conservative backbencher Mark Francois, said: “Are you really telling us that there’s still a possibility we will allow a company effectively owned by the Chinese Communist party to have a meaningful role in our telecommunications network?”
Francois repeatedly pressed Dowden on whether the UK government believed that high-risk vendors like Huawei should be removed in future. The minister agreed but added the government had “not set out a timetable” for doing so, a key demand of the rebels who want Huawei out in two to three years.
A bill to legislate for 5G supply rules is due to be introduced before the summer recess in July, but Dowden conceded that if the Huawei policy changed as a result of the review, he would have to “ask parliament’s forbearance” and seek “a slight delay” – suggesting draft laws might not emerge until September.
After the committee hearing, Victor Zhang, a vice-president of Huawei, said the company remained committed to the UK: “We are investing billions to make the prime minister’s vision of a ‘connected kingdom’ a reality so that British families and businesses have access to fast, reliable mobile and broadband networks wherever they live.”