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Who’s the GAFA?
The Withdrawal Agreement Bill finally received Royal Assent tonight with a perfunctory announcement in the House of Lords, and a similarly muted confirmation in the Commons. For Brexiteers, it’s been a long, long time coming and the celebrations and fireworks are clearly being saved up for ‘Independence Day’ at the end of the month.
As he looks ahead to the rest of 2020, Boris Johnson is naturally being depicted as the man who will tilt the UK’s axis away from Europe and towards the US. But I wonder if he will once again surprise us all?
It’s not the narrative he will ever like, but Johnson’s ‘Brexit breakthrough’ of 2019 was as much down to him caving in to Brussels as it was him standing up to Brussels. You don’t have to be a Remainer to see that the EU got its way on a border in the Irish Sea, and the PM acquiesced in order to get a deal. He talked tough on Northern Ireland, but in the end (as the DUP found to their cost) what trumped everything was his belief that the national interest lay in just ending the logjam of the past three years.
And as he weighs up his relations with the US, will similarly hard-headed British interests come out on top? On Huawei, will the apparent fawning over Donald Trump be replaced by a realpolitik that the Chinese company suits British needs, no matter how loudly Washington objects?
No.10 made clear today that a decision on allowing Huawei limited access to the UK’s 5G network was coming next week. The diplomatically easy thing for Johnson would have been to delayed the review yet again, but it’s clear that he doesn’t want anything to get in the way of his election promise to roll out ‘gigabit’ broadband across the country.
And just like last week, Downing Street sources were remarkably bullish about defying Trump’s repeated warnings that if the UK doesn’t ban Huawei it risks losing shared intelligence. It seems that Britain’s patience has finally run out. Having asked Silicon Valley to find some kind of new tech that would rival the Chinese offer, all the government got was a shrug of the shoulders. “The market conditions are not the same in the US and UK,” the source said. “You could call it a market failure, but we are where we are.” Damning stuff.
The Times’ well-connected Gerard Baker revealed today that cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill ‘erupted’ in a meeting last week when American officials tried to tell him of some ‘new’ dossier on Huawei. Sedwill, who is also the national security adviser, knows better than most that British intelligence chiefs have long believed the Huawei risk (they have been monitoring it for years) is manageable. And the Treasury knows that the cost of banning the firm would run into billions.
As it happens, on our Commons People podcast this week Tory MP Bim Afolami (who stressed he had no intelligence background) put succinctly what may end up being the government’s case next week: “The core question from my perspective is if it isn’t Huawei, then who is it and how much does it cost and is it possible?”
Afolami added this: “We can’t just not do something because the Americans don’t like it. We have to make our own decision and if our spooks, who are some of the finest in the world who have the interests of this country at heart think it can be done in a safe way then I can’t really see why not.” Not so much Love Actually, but Bim actually.
Would Trump try to use the UK-US post-Brexit trade deal to gain leverage? Well, if he has, it looks like that hasn’t succeeded. Many in Whitehall now expect the Huawei green light next week. Could it be that the Johnson government is less scared of Trump than many think? Yes he needs some kind of transatlantic trade deal (and wants to run it in parallel with EU trade talks). But Trump also needs Johnson to provide a smiley endorsement on the White House lawn this spring, to help his ‘world statesman’ credentials ahead of the presidential election in November.
A truly fawning British government wouldn’t keep insisting on a digital services tax either, with Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon (known as GAFA) all targeted. France’s own ‘GAFA tax’ provoked the threat of a wine levy from Trump. This week, US treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin warned Sajid Javid: “If people want to just arbitrarily put taxes on our digital companies we will consider arbitrarily putting taxes on car companies.” But Javid still insisted the UK would go ahead in April.
Back in the 1980s, socialist workers in Britain used to sell their papers with the badge ‘neither Washington nor Moscow, but international socialism’. One can imagine allies of the PM wanting his own slogan to end up being ‘neither Washington nor Brussels, but ultra-national Johnsonism’. Stranger things have happened.
Quote Of The Day
“I categorically deny that I have ever bullied anyone, anywhere at any time.”
John Bercow on the latest claims from former Commons clerk Lord Lisvane
Thursday Cheat Sheet
Richard Ratcliffe, whose British-Iranian wife is jailed in Iran, said after a meeting with Boris Johnson that there has been “no breakthrough” in efforts to secure her release. The PM told him he is “personally committed” to her case and was “touched” when he gave him a wallet that his wife had made in prison.
John Bercow said that the government “has no intention of honouring the centuries-old convention that a departing Speaker is promptly elevated to the House of Lords”. No.10 said waspishly: “The Speaker was not always such a fan of convention.” Senior Tory MP Maria Miller told Newsnight his peerage nomination should be ‘put on ice’ pending investigation into bullying claims.
Sajid Javid tried to reassure business by telling a Davos meeting: “We won’t diverge [from EU regulation] just for the sake of it”.
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