Commons Diary: Bob Seely
Bob Seely was among the Tory MPs to rebel over Huawei this week. Standing by his decision, the backbencher argues questioning government is good – even when you support it.
Life for me as a Parliamentarian is a constant battle, albeit a wonderful one, to keep plates spinning.
The majority of my time is spent fighting to get the Isle of Wight a better deal. However, last week I focused on a national issue. I’ve been working with a group of colleagues to persuade Government that ‘high-risk’ high-tech firms – like China’s Huawei – shouldn’t be in our 5G networks. We believe they are bad for national security, data privacy, free and fair trade and espionage concerns.
I supported Boris when he became PM and I look forward to this Government successfully redefining politics for a generation. But my gut feeling is that the decision to allow Huawei into 5G is just wrong: many colleagues agree.
Over the weekend, I distribute our briefing note to explain our concerns via the ubiquitous WhatsApp group, referencing source material to encourage colleagues to read it.
On Monday and Tuesday, we talk to the Secretary of State and others. We huddle to discuss a form of words. We are hopeful of compromise but fear that, in reality, little is changing.
On Tuesday afternoon, we go into the Telecomms debate not knowing what will happen. I still know how IDS’ amendment got tagged onto the debate – God bless the Bill Office for their creativity! IDS speaks well. So does Liam Fox, David Davis, Owen Paterson and others. We press ministers.
Honestly speaking, I talk for a little too long, feeling the need to almost shout my words whilst Iain and the Chief Whip negotiate a few feet away from me and Members return to the Chamber sensing the vote is imminent. Lesson: my speech was okay, I got things off my chest, but I should have read the mood better and wound up earlier.
I ‘tell’ for the amendment – the ‘rebels’ side. I count the votes as MPs walk through the lobbies. I fear we will be embarrassed. I also feel uncomfortable counting my Conservatives colleagues through when I am not voting with them. I ponder that. On one side, I am here to support the Government. On the other, I am also here to do my constituent bidding and exercise my conscience. If I can live with it, frankly, so can the Government. I don’t regret my actions. They are right.
The numbers are in. A 100-vote majority in the previous vote shrinks to 24: 38 of us, including two tellers, vote for our amendment. If we were living in normal political times, this would be dominating the front pages. We got those votes by putting an amendment on an inappropriate bill, and with barely any attempt to ‘whip’ ourselves. It’s a strong first result. This issue will not go away.
So what have I learned, or better, re-learned? First, questioning Government is good, even when you support it. It is, after all, our job. Second, Government doesn’t always get it right – and it is not right on this. Third, what’s important for me now is to become the best Parliamentarian I can be. Fourth, Government starts to listen when you form alliances, whether on Huawei or your local hospital.
That week I dine with ex-spooks and civil servants. They tell me that the reassurances from the agencies do not tell the whole story, that the advice, in reality, is more complex, that the cyber-spooks’ true voice is in the Huawei Oversight Cell’s excoriating reports, and even that some of them would be relieved if we manage to change Government minds. I am thrown by the last line, but it confirms that I know our cause is right.
I return to my office and prep a letter to the Chancellor to ask what the infrastructure investment he is expected to announce in the Budget will mean for my Island. Back to politics as normal, representing my beloved Island. I wouldn’t want to speak for anywhere else in the world.
Bob Seely is Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight