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10 March 2020

Boris Johnson wins vote on Huawei 5G plans – but he should still fear the Tory rebels

The government’s parliamentary majority was slashed from 80 to just 24, and more trouble lies ahead.

By Patrick Maguire

Disaster averted? Boris Johnson has narrowly avoided his first Commons defeat of this parliament after the government saw off a Tory rebellion over plans to allow Huawei, the Chinese telecoms giant, access to the UK’s new 5G network.

Conservative backbenchers led by Iain Duncan Smith – who oppose granting access to Huawei on national security grounds – had tabled an amendment to the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill that sought to ban mobile networks contracting “high-risk vendors”, of which Huawei is one.

Despite enjoying the support of several dozen Tories and the vast majority of opposition MPs, the amendment was defeated by 306 votes to 282. But Downing Street has every cause to view today’s narrow reprieve as a pyrrhic victory: its majority of 24 was barely a quarter of its parliamentary majority of 80 seats.

Those numbers illuminate several uncomfortable truths for the government. The first is evergreen: Johnson’s comfortable victory has not inoculated backbenchers against dissent, even if they agree with the rest of the Prime Minister’s agenda. Though the bar they must clear is much higher, backbench rebellions are still very much a live prospect. More worryingly, this one was much more ecumenical than any over Brexit – the rebels run the full ideological gamut from Tom Tugendhat to Esther McVey, and even included a member of the 2019 intake, Totnes MP Anthony Mangnall. 

The second and third truths suggest more trouble to come. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Johnson’s cabinet might be of lower wattage than many assumed. Oliver Dowden, who was promoted to Culture Secretary last month, has long been written up as a rising star, but he singularly failed to convince Duncan Smith and his fellow rebels to withdraw their amendment over the course of a fractious session at the despatch box. Indeed, his performance seemed only to strengthen their resolve.

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There will be other legislative flashpoints on Huawei, some of them overseen by other ministers. But it is painfully clear Dowden, who has primary oversight of the issue as the cabinet member responsible for digital policy, is far from trusted as an honest broker.

Then there is the question of the frontbench opposite. Just as observers might have overestimated the strength of the Treasury bench, Westminster has to a certain extent forgotten what effective, co-ordinated opposition politics can look like. Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet is about to be replaced by an operation that will be altogether more comfortable – and capable – of leveraging Conservative rebels against their own government, as Keir Starmer frequently did in the 2017 parliament. No wonder, then, that the rebels believe their day will soon come.