The government was given a bloody nose by its own backbenchers this afternoon, after a group of rebels led by former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith stuck to their guns on Huawei.
MPs voted 306 to 282 against an amendment calling for Downing Street to stop using “high risk vendors” – a term that appears to apply solely to the Chinese firm.
Although that fell well short of the total number needed to bring about a defeat, the group which also numbered former Brexit secretary David Davis and foreign affairs select committee chair Tom Tugendhat, the result is likely to be viewed as a warning shot.
Culture secretary Oliver Dowden attempted to persuade wavering Tories by telling the government was committed to the 35 per cent cap on Huawei within the network, which would be brought down over time. He also said Number 10 was working with Five Eyes allies on alternative suppliers, citing lack of options as the reason for using Huawei in the first place.
He added that ministers would listen to concerns when they brought forward a bill relating to Huawei’s involvement in the 5G network before summer recess “so all honourable members will be able to debate these points extensively”.
But he added that he would be “candid” about what he was not able to promise.
“I’m not setting out a timetable, a date to get to the point where we don’t have to rely on them at all,” he said, pointing to the next bill, expected in June, as the right time for that discussion.
Duncan Smith, who at the start of the debate was seen in deep discussion with Dowden, told the Commons he was “always flexible on the date” – giving clear wiggle room, as long as a firm commitment was made to rid Huawei by a certain point.
The government must begin to remove Huawei “at speed” and before the end of parliament, he added.
That position was echoed by Davis and others including Bob Seely, who claimed ministers appeared more willing to change its position last week than this week.
he warned further pressure would be applied by “going shopping” among other backbenchers to present a “much more robust game”.
“We’ve not done the kind of campaigning you would do if you wanted to a, quote, rebellion. We have taken the view that this early in a government’s life you would prefer to avoid it.”
Davis said yesterday’s GCHQ briefing, designed to win MPs over, had resulted in further would-be rebels who felt it had been “patronising”.
It would be “very unwise” to ignore the movement, he added.