Boris Johnson is facing the prospect of his first Commons rebellion since the general election over his decision to allow Huawei a role in building the UK’s 5G network.
Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith has tabled an amendment which would ban “high-risk vendors” like the Chinese tech giant from the network after 2022.
The move has the backing of a number of prominent Conservative MPs including former cabinet ministers Damian Green and David Davis, the chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee Tom Tugendhat and the chairman of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady.
Supporters, however, played down the prospect that the Government – which has a Commons majority of 80 – could be defeated if the amendment is called at the report stage of the Telecoms Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill in the Commons on Tuesday.
We want to work with the Government, not to defeat itBob Seely MP
Instead, Tory backbencher Bob Seely, one of the MPs behind the move, said they were “laying down a marker” ahead of other legislation later in the year to establish a comprehensive telecoms security regime.
He said there was “growing momentum” within the party with “three or four MPs” expressing concern to the whips for every one likely to vote for the amendment next week.
“We want to work with the Government, not to defeat it. We want to co-operate with the Government to get a better solution,” he told the PA news agency.
The pressure on the Government is likely to increase with the announcement that the Commons Defence Committee is to set up a sub-committee specifically to look at the issue of 5G security.
The committee chairman, former defence minister Tobias Ellwood, said: “It is paramount that, as we negotiate this new technology, we ask the uncomfortable questions about the possibility of abuse by foreign parties.
“A decision of this magnitude must be made with eyes wide open, and we will not shy away from tackling the public’s concerns head-on.”
Huawei vice president, Victor Zhang, said: “Over the last 18 months, the Government and two parliamentary committees have conducted detailed assessments of the facts and concluded there is no reason to ban Huawei from supplying 5G equipment on cyber security grounds.
“We have been operating in Britain for nearly 20 years, and played a vital role in the development and delivery of 3G and 4G for people across the UK.
“Cyber security requires high and common standards across the telecoms industry, which Huawei has always supported. Creating a 5G Britain rightly requires scrutiny and we will work with the Select Committee to address their questions in the coming months.”
The committee’s move reflects misgivings across Parliament at the decision, with fears that it could open up a “backdoor” for China to spy on the UK’s telecoms network.
It has also imposed strains on relations with the United States, with an “apoplectic” Donald Trump reportedly venting his fury during a telephone call with Mr Johnson.
In a Commons Westminster Hall debate on Wednesday, Sir Iain said the decision had left Britain “friendless” among its Five Eyes security allies.
He compared it to letting “Nazi companies in Germany” to become involved in developing Britain’s radar systems at the start of the Second World War in 1939.
Both Labour and the SNP – the two largest opposition parties – echoed the concerns, with shadow business minister Chi Onwurah saying they shared a “deep commitment to British security”.
The Government has sought to allay criticism, insisting that Huawei’s involvement would be restricted to providing 35% of the network’s “non-core” elements.
Digital infrastructure minister Matt Warman told MPs the Government’s “long-term goal” was to reduce their reliance on high-risk vendors.
However, he said they were currently faced with a “very narrow choice of suppliers” and that any timetable “must be contingent of diversification in the market”.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “We have been clear that our world-leading cyber security experts are satisfied with our approach and it won’t affect our ability to share intelligence.”