Patrick Kidd: It may be drowned out by sneezing, but there is trouble ahead for the Tories
Less than three months after winning an election in which he portrayed Jeremy Corbyn as a security risk, Boris Johnson is being tarred with the same brush by his own side, writes Patrick Kidd
When government headaches come they come not single spies but in battalions. The front pages may be dominated by biblical tales of flood and flu, drowning out the plague of locusts chomping their way up East Africa (boils and frogs to come), but there are plenty of other significant problems in the prime minister’s in-tray.
Take the decision to let Huawei, the Chinese technology firm, be involved in building Britain’s 5G communications network. Not only has this upset the Trump White House and other partners in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, but it has stirred up the Tory backbenches to open rebellion. Less than three months after winning an election in which he portrayed Jeremy Corbyn as a security risk, Boris Johnson is being tarred with the same brush by his own side.
In Westminster Hall on Wednesday an impressive line-up of senior Tories took turns to attack the prime minister. It was opened by a former party leader, featured speeches by several former Cabinet ministers, including a former deputy prime minister, and involved the chairmen of the foreign affairs and culture select committees. “If the Tory party had a politburo,” remarked Stewart McDonald (SNP, Glasgow South), “this would be it. It is clearly a sign that the government have trouble ahead.”
You could tell the depth of the trouble by the praise that was being slathered on Iain Duncan Smith (C, Chingford & Woodford Green), who opened the debate by saying that the decision had left the government “utterly friendless among our allies”. The response was like listening to the boardroom toadies in an episode of W1A. “Brilliant,” simpered David Davis (C, Haltemprice & Howden). “Excellent,” purred Richard Drax (C, South Dorset). These are not adjectives often applied to a piece of IDS oratory.
And the praise was cross-party. “A really first-class speech,” gushed Jamie Stone, though the Lib Dem admitted that for most of his constituents in Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross it would be nice to have 1G communication, never mind 5G. He said that Britain is “going down a very dangerous road indeed”.
Bob Seely (C, Isle of Wight), a slightly intense foreign affairs enthusiast who often speaks with his glasses perched on his forehead, which makes him look like Professor Branestawm, said that it was baffling for the government to claim that Huawei is just a private company. Their relationship with the Chinese state is the same as the Communist Youth League, he said. Damian Green (C, Ashford) laughed at the suggestion by a director of Huawei that its corporate set-up was rather like John Lewis’s. “My socks might be bugged!” exclaimed Mr Duncan Smith, fearing Chinese incursions into hosiery. Never knowingly underspied?
On the attacks went. Phrases like “absolute indictment” and “simply intolerable” were given solid “hear-hears” that should cause sweats in the Tory whips’ office. Mr Duncan Smith said the deal would be like asking the Nazis to build our radar systems in 1939. Mr Davis, attacking this “kowtow” to China, pointed out that “even Vietnam, for God’s sake – a communist country” would not allow Huawei into their systems. “They know their neighbours,” purred Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the foreign affairs committee.
A rare voice of support for the government came from Ruth Edwards, the new Tory MP for Rushcliffe, who declared an interest as someone who has worked for ten years in the cyber-security industry. This is one of those experts of whom the current government is usually suspicious. Today the expert was an ally. Huawei has no history of “malicious activity”, she said, and the risk was at an acceptable level. She gave a rather better defence of government policy after three months in the job than the minister later did.
It was not enough. Mr Seely intervened on her to say that it would be “like giving a burglar the keys to our house while pretending that we have a safe that is safe”.
These criticisms from his backbenches are not going to go away, even if they are drowned out for now by sneezing. Mr Johnson is lucky that the nation is currently more concerned with pathological viruses than technological ones.
Patrick Kidd’s book, The Weak Are A Long Time In Politics, published by Biteback, is out now