Friday 3 May 2019 8:42 am

The tangled Huawei web isn’t just about Gavin Williamson

To say that Gavin Williamson was neither widely liked nor widely respected in Westminster would be an understatement.

Often a figure of ridicule for the pet tarantula kept on his desk when he was chief whip, his former life as a fireplace salesman, and gaffes like saying Russia should “go away and shut up”, he was generally considered unashamedly brazen even by usual political standards in his ambitions to climb the greasy pole.

As one Conservative insider put it to me: “he is like the product of an attempt to cross-breed all of the worst young Tories”.

This goes some way towards explaining the mood of sensationalism that has swept over Westminster in the wake of Williamson’s abrupt departure on Wednesday.

The rest of the firestorm is down to a heady cocktail of details that exemplify the current political climate: a leak from a National Security Council meeting (which is far more serious than from a general cabinet meeting), an inquiry that against all odds actually purported to have found the culprit in less than a week, and the first sacking of a cabinet minister for leaking in three decades, which makes him the 38th person to leave Theresa May’s government in just one year.

If May thought that firing Williamson would bring a swift end to the matter and cement her crumbling authority, it backfired.

The former defence secretary is swearing on his children’s lives that it wasn’t him who leaked the information, while opposition MPs are calling for a criminal investigation.

At a time when everyone is watching the embattled Prime Minister for signs that she has completely lost even the semblance of control over her government, don’t expect Williamson to “go away”, or anyone else to “shut up”.

This is a national scandal. Because while Williamson continues to proclaim his innocence and his opponents bay for his blood, the issue over which the leak occurred in the first place has firmly become last week’s news.

The debate concerned whether it is a security risk to allow the Chinese company Huawei to help build the UK’s 5G infrastructure.

In the yes corner: Williamson himself, the home and foreign secretaries, key intelligence officials, and the Americans, who previously warned that they would refuse to share intelligence with countries that used Chinese technology in their critical information systems.

They argue that Huawei has close ties to the Chinese Communist Party and is, like all big Chinese firms, heavily influenced if not outright controlled by the government.

They note a Chinese law which, though it has never yet been used, mandates that the country’s companies cooperate with the government in intelligence gathering if asked.

They point to the string of accusations and criminal charges against Huawei and its leadership team, China’s established reputation for stealing IP, and the threat to both UK businesses and national security.

In the no corner: the Prime Minister and her allies, the chancellor (who stressed the need for a “cost-effective” and “rapid” way to roll out 5G), and much of the UK’s tech community, which is clamouring to get this next generation network up and running as soon as possible.

Huawei’s supporters point out that the company is a world leader in this kind of innovation, and that its technology is already widely used across the UK, without causing alarm.

They emphasise the importance of 5G to the UK economy, in terms of everything from the government’s industrial strategy to the internet of things to self-driving cars.

They note the cost of collaborating with Huawei in comparison to other firms, and reiterate that the proposal is only for it to help build “non-core” parts of the network to mitigate risk.

And some (particularly in the tech sphere) have been wondering whether the panic has more to do with a xenophobic distrust of China and desire to appease America rather than actual threats.

These are not straightforward risks and benefits to compare. We need to establish how much of the anxiety about Huawei is hyperbole, and what the costs to the British economy would be if the company is banned entirely, potentially delaying the 5G roll-out.

That requires greater consultation with the tech firms and phone companies which are operating in this space, a clearer understanding of what exactly “non-core” means, and perhaps even a more nuanced assessment of the severity of the warnings from UK allies that they will cease sharing intelligence with us if we pursue this partnership.

Britain is a world leader both in tech and in national security. How we trade those priorities off against one another will define our place in the world for decades to come.

Forget Brexit, this is an issue of fundamental national importance.

And yet, Huawei has now become little more than a footnote in the saga of Williamson versus May.

Williamson has for years tried to place himself centre-stage in the political fray. Now he has succeeded, by refocusing the spotlight away from a question vastly more important than who might take over from May in a leadership contest.

But whatever else we might blame him for, this misdirection isn’t Williamson’s fault. As a nation, we should be paying a lot more attention to Huawei, and far less to the razzle-dazzle political cabaret about a guy who kept a pet spider.