There was amazement in London when the Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson was suddenly summoned to Number Ten Downing Street and asked to resign by Prime Minister Theresa May. The shock increased when he refused to quit and she decided to fire him – even though he has been her strong political supporter in the House of Commons.
The China factor
The issue that split them was China. The Prime Minister was angered by a leak which appeared in a newspaper, suggesting that the government will choose the Chinese firm Huawei to build the UK’s telecoms infrastructure and develop the 5G network, which will increase the connectivity of the so-called Internet of Things.
In China itself, use of the internet is tightly controlled by the Communist Party although Huawei maintains it is an independent company and claims there is no risk of spying or sabotage.
The Huawei issue was recently raised at the National Security Council, chaired by Prime Minister May. It takes evidence directly from Britain’s security services and is known as the “holy of holies” when it comes to discussing secrets. A leak is a serious matter – perhaps even a criminal offence.
Prime Minister May ordered her top officials to find out how information from the committee was leaked to the Daily Telegraph newspaper. Mr Williamson says neither he nor his department were responsible but the premier did not believe him. In a letter confirming his dismissal, she said there was “no other credible version of events.”
Yet some Conservative supporters believe it would have been quite appropriate for a politician to alert the public that Britain was about to do an important deal with Huawei. In an editorial, the Sun newspaper – a Conservative-supporting tabloid – said that the information disclosed in the leak was in the public interest. The Sun said: “Theresa May is ready to snub our Five Eyes security allies and potentially give Chinese state spies access to our new 5G network.”
The Five Eyes allies include Australia – which recently banned Huawei from 5G – and the United States. The FBI’s Director Chris Wray has warned that the American government is “deeply concerned” about China’s “capacity to maliciously modify or steal information” or to “conduct undetected espionage.”
Until recently, Huawei was relatively unknown in the UK and people struggled to pronounce its Chinese name. The company has therefore spent hundreds of millions of pounds trying to build its brand. Massive billboards appear inside London’s main railway stations. Huawei also advertises heavily in the newspapers, including in the Daily Telegraph, which leaked the story which led to the Defence Secretary’s sacking.
The Telegraph has also recently carried a puff for the company under the headline “Criticism of Huawei is Unfair” written by its UK Chief Executive Jerry Wang. The Telegraph also ran an article by the Chinese Ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming, entitled “Britain can and must work with Huawei on 5G.” These articles have been translated into Chinese and appear on government websites in China.
There are some skeptical voices inside the British Conservative party. MP Julian Lewis, who chairs the influential Defence Select Committee in Parliament said: “I don’t believe the Prime Minister understands the relationship between Huawei and the Communist one-party totalitarian state.”
He said: “There is no question of secrets being leaked – what’s been leaked has been information about which ministers supported a Chinese-controlled communications company being allowed to penetrate our critical national telecoms infrastructure.”
Dr Lewis said that there can be no guarantee that foreign governments would not sabotage or commit espionage through the UK’s telecom network.
Dr Lewis is also known for his outspoken views on Brexit. He is a supporter of the Eurosceptic group Leave Means Leave and often criticizes Prime Minister May for not exiting the European Union sooner.
The divisive issue of Brexit is one that splits the government, the Conservative Party, and the House of Commons. It leaves Britain lacking clear leadership and the sacking of the defence secretary adds to the feeling of turmoil.
It is within this turbulent climate that the debate about whether Huawei can be trusted to take responsibility for a major aspect of British life is taking place. Soon will come a decision which is crucial to the company and to the future of China.