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6 March 2020

Is Boris Johnson about to suffer his first Commons defeat?

Conservative grandees have hatched a plan to table an amendment that would prevent the government from letting Huawei anywhere near the UK's new 5G network.

By Patrick Maguire

Will Boris Johnson suffer his first significant parliamentary defeat next week? That’s the uncomfortable question confronting ministers in the Times and FT this morning.

With the Commons due to vote on telecoms legislation on Tuesday, Conservative grandees led by Iain Duncan Smith and David Davis have hatched a plan to table an amendment banning mobile networks from installing equipment from “high-risk vendors”. Or, to put it more simply, preventing the government from letting Huawei anywhere near the UK’s new 5G network.

Will the rebels succeed? Since ministers announced that the Chinese telecoms giant would be allowed to build up to 35 per cent of the network’s “non-core” infrastructure in January, hostile backbenchers have talked up the chances of a rebellion and with it a defeat for Johnson. Now they have their legislative flashpoint. Though led by Brexiteers in Duncan Smith, Davis and Owen Paterson, the coalition of the unwilling on Huawei are a genuinely ecumenical bunch: prominent wets like Tom Tugendhat and Damian Green are also vocal sceptics. And with Labour also opposed, 40 Tories is all the rebels need to overturn the government’s majority of 80.

Of course, parliamentary rebellions are much easier to talk threateningly about than actually effect: just ask Conservative opponents of HS2. But hostile briefings from MPs who otherwise agree with the government’s agenda but fear the consequences of a deal with Huawei for national security are a salutary reminder for the Prime Minister: here are our principles, and, although you like them, I’m afraid we have others.

Rishi Sunak’s first budget, due to be delivered on Wednesday, could yet be a casualty of the same dynamic. For all the enthusiastic talk of levelling up regional infrastructure from the Tory backbenches, any move to end the decade-long freeze of fuel duty will enrage many of the same MPs, who, despite their blue-collar Conservatism and provincial accents, still believe in a low-tax economy. No 10 could well be on course for a double whammy of rude reminders that even majority government is not without its political costs and risks.

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