Huawei is to be stripped out of Britain’s 5G phone networks by 2027, a date that puts Boris Johnson on collision course with a group of Conservative rebels who want the Chinese company eliminated quicker and more comprehensively.
Oliver Dowden, the UK culture secretary, will also announce that no new Huawei 5G kit can be bought after 31 December 31 this year – but disappointed the rebels by saying that older 2G, 3G and 4G kit can remain until it is no longer needed.
However, the minister is expected to declare that the UK will be on an “irreversible path” to eliminating “high-risk vendors” such as Huawei in 5G by the time of the next general election in 2024, in attempt to placate some MPs.
The decision represents an enforced U-turn on a previous decision to allow Huawei to supply 35% of the UK’s 5G equipment, and a compromise with BT and Vodafone, who warned there could be phone “outages” if they were forced to act sooner.
Officials acknowledged it was likely to cost the UK telecoms industry hundreds of millions of pounds and lead to the rollout of 5G in the UK being delayed, because Huawei is the market-leading supplier for future kit.
The decision follows the announcement in May of further US sanctions against Huawei, preventing it from using microchips from American suppliers.
Downing Street then asked the National Cyber Security Centre, part of the spy agency GCHQ, to review Huawei’s security and said its equipment could not be considered safe if it had to rely on non-US components.
“The sanctions were a gamechanger,” a Whitehall official said.
Dowden told MPs that the changes he was announcing would delay the roll out of 5G by two to three years and cost the phone companies £2bn which could be passed on in bills to consumers.
Despite the retreat, the Conservative rebels believe Huawei still represents a national security risk and want the UK to follow the US and Australia, which have implemented more complete bans.
The rebel MPs say they number about 60, theoretically enough to defeat the government, if the opposition parties join forces with them. They want Huawei removed from existing 3G and 4G networks as well as 5G by 2026 at the latest.
A rebel source said: “The fight is back on. The Telecoms Infrastructure Bill will face amendments to ban 3G and 4G on the same basis as 5G and to bring forward the end date for equipment. We are confident that they will be successful.”
If Johnson does not retreat further, their plan is amend the telecoms security bill intended to legislate for the two-part ban on Huawei. That was due to emerge before the summer recess but has been pushed back until the autumn.
The prime minister has become embroiled in an intense geopolitical row over Huawei, in which the US president, Donald Trump, has demanded the Chinese company be kicked out of the UK, claiming it poses a long-term security risk.
Huawei denies it has ever been asked to engage in any spying on behalf of the Chinese state, while Beijing itself says Johnson’s decision will be an acid test of the Sino-British relationship that had developed under David Cameron.
Officials also want Huawei to be removed from high-speed, full-fibre connections following a two-year transition period, working with companies to find a way of eliminating the Chinese company’s equipment.
No compensation is expected to be paid to BT or Vodafone or Huawei. BT’s chief executive had said on Monday it would be possible to remove Huawei from 5G in five years – but warned that it would be impossible to remove older equipment entirely within 10 years.
A few minutes before the announcement was made on Tuesday, Huawei said former BP boss Lord Browne would be stepping down as chairman of its board of directors from September. Browne, who had held the post for five years, did not say he was quitting but the company thanked him for “his valuable contribution”.