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Boris Johnson must commit to eventually eliminating Huawei from Britain’s telecoms infrastructure, a senior MP has warned, amid reports there could be a Tory rebellion.
Tom Tugendhat said the prime minister’s decision to defy the warnings of Donald Trump and several senior Tories by allowing the Chinese tech giant to play a role in building 5G infrastructure was not “safe” in the long-term.
Johnson attempted to stem the criticism by capping Huawei’s market share at 35% but Tugendhat said he wants ministers to go further and make clear an ambition to cut it to zero within “three or four years”.
British security services insist that any risk from Huawei’s involvement can be managed, especially as it is being limited to “non-core” infrastructure.
But Tugendhat has insisted it was akin to “letting the fox into the hen house”.
Reports suggest there are up to 45 Tory rebels to defeat the government on the issue unless it beefs up protections.
The Commons foreign affairs committee chair told HuffPost UK’s Commons People podcast: “My criticism is not that the government has put itself in this situation, that is really not the government’s fault.
“My criticism is that I haven’t yet heard that the flightpath is to zero.
“At the moment I have heard that the flightpath is to 35%, which is a hell of a descent and that’s great, that’s a really good direction of travel.
“I’ve also heard... that there are ways through diversification, through all the different ways of encouraging new entrants and so on, that the flightpath can get to 25-20-15% and so on.
“But I want to hear that the aim is zero, because there isn’t a safe number.”
Tugendhat highlighted “how much” support there was from fellow Tories like Iain Duncan Smith, Penny Mordaunt and David Davis when he asked an urgent question on Huawei on Monday.
“This is not something that’s particularly controversial,” he said.
“One of the things that has struck me is - I have put a few things up on social media and the support for the position I have been advocating has been really pretty universal.”
Tugendhat said he wanted ministers to be “absolutely clear” about a commitment to move to replace Huawei with competitors so telecoms companies will know that they cannot use the Chinese technology in “three or four years”.
Outlining his concerns about the firm’s involvement, he suggested that the power of 5G could leave British citizens open to blackmail or exploitation by the Chinese authoritarian government.
Tugendhat said the network will underpin the so-called “internet of things”, or interconnected objects and devices, in which people will leave a far more detailed “digital exhaust” than now.
“As that happens, as the car speaks to the traffic light, as the meter speaks to the passing checking van, you know what I mean - all these internet enabled devices that actually start communicating with each other - you are not talking about producing 1x or 2x the amount of data, you are talking about exponential levels,” Tugendhat said.
“And that real change is where you start to get security risks that are not to do with sharing what the name of the agent is or discussing an operation in Iran, you are talking about getting the kind of granular detail about individuals that sees them able to be exploited, able to be influenced, able to be manipulated by someone a long, long way away.”
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said on Thursday he was “confident” that Britain and the US can work through their differences on Huawei.
Speaking ahead of talks in Downing Street with Johnson, Pompeo made clear that Washington still has deep reservations about the involvement of Chinese firms in Western telecoms systems.
But he indicated that the issue would not affect talks on a post-Brexit trade agreement, saying the UK is still at “the front of the line” for a deal.
Speaking alongside foreign secretary Dominic Raab at a Policy Exchange event in London, Pompeo said the US still believes that having Huawei technology within the network is “very difficult to mitigate” and “not worth the candle”.
He added however: “The decision was made on Tuesday. I’m confident we can work together to implement that decision and work to get this right.”