Andrew Parker, head of MI5, says he has “no reason to think” that the UK’s intelligence-sharing relationship with the US would be hit if Britain adopted Huawei technology in its 5G mobile phone network, as a key decision on the issue looms.
Sir Andrew’s comments will increase expectations in UK government and industry circles that the Chinese company’s equipment will be permitted for use in some “non-core” parts of the network.
Boris Johnson’s government will on Monday face last-minute lobbying from Washington to exclude Huawei from the country’s 5G network, as the prime minister prepares to make a decision — expected this month — with huge geopolitical and economic consequences.
Washington has warned that if Chinese technology is used by the UK then intelligence sharing could be undermined. But blocking Huawei would be costly to the telecoms sector and deal a heavy blow to the rollout of the new data technology in Britain.
Beijing has also been putting pressure on Mr Johnson not to jeopardise the UK-China relationship and the decision will be a seen as a key indicator of how the prime minister intends to position Britain in a post-Brexit world.
A US delegation comprising representatives from the National Economic Council and National Security Agency will arrive in London for a last-minute lobbying effort with UK officials on Monday.
But in an interview with the FT, Sir Andrew, who is stepping down as director-general of MI5 in April, said the links in the “five eyes” intelligence partnership between Britain, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand were “the strongest they’ve been”.
He said the US-UK partnership was “very close and trusted”, adding: “It is, of course, of great importance to us. And, I dare say, to the US too, though that’s for them to say. It is a two-way street.”
When asked specifically whether he thought that the UK would lose out on intelligence relationships if the government decided to go ahead with Huawei, he said he did not think this was a danger. “I’ve no reason today to think that,” he said.
Sir Andrew acknowledged that security concerns alone should not always “dominate and dictate” a decision, and that Mr Johnson and his national security council had been left with a difficult decision because there were so few suppliers in the market.
All four mobile networks in Britain have now launched 5G with Vodafone, BT, EE and Three all using the Chinese company’s equipment at the so-called non-core level — such as the antennas and base stations used on masts and rooftops — but not in the “core” network operations where customer details are held and calls are routed.
“Perhaps the thing that needs more focus and more discussion is how do we get to a future where there’s a wider range of competition and a wider range of sovereign choices than defaulting to a yes or no about Chinese technology,” Sir Andrew said.
British government officials admit that blocking Huawei now would deal a blow to consumers, noting that Huawei was being used because its equipment was seen as good value.
In spite of US pressure, some inside the UK government and within the telecoms industry expect Mr Johnson to arrive at a similar decision to the one taken by Theresa May’s national security council in April 2019, when ministers agreed to allow Huawei to build some “non-core” parts of the network.
A subsequent decision to review the issue — following pressure from the Trump administration — has created great uncertainty in the industry.
Downing Street insiders stress that no decision has been taken and that the ministers making the decision this month — including Mr Johnson — were “a new cast” who were looking at the evidence afresh. Only Sajid Javid, now chancellor but then home secretary, remains of the ministers on Mrs May’s NSC in April 2019.
Additional reporting by Nic Fildes in London and Kiran Stacey in Washington