Questions remain over whether Huawei should be given approval to develop Britain’s 5G network, Lisa Nandy has said as she accused the Conservatives of a “naive” approach to China over the past decade.
In an interview with The Independent, the shadow foreign secretary also warned global alliances could “break apart” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, with countries such as the US accelerating protectionist policies, populist rhetoric and increasingly scapegoating migrants.
The Labour frontbencher’s remarks follow reports Boris Johnson is seeking to curtail the Chinese company’s involvement in building the vital infrastructure in the UK and growing unease in Tory ranks exacerbated by the global health crisis.
Despite an explosive diplomatic confrontation with Donald Trump’s administration, the prime minister provided Huawei with the green light to build “non-core” parts of the 5G network in January. Ministers have previously pledged to bring the issue to a Commons vote in the early summer.
The tech giant is due to hold talks with one of Mr Johnson’s senior aides, Sir Eddie Lister, this week, in an attempt to understand the prime minister’s intentions.
“When parliament returns on Tuesday you’ll start to see this dominating quite a bit of parliamentary time,” Ms Nandy predicted.
“The honest truth is that the reason the UK has a problem with the 5G network is because we lost our homegrown industry some time ago and we just haven’t invested here. I think Huawei has exposed the dangers of that because it leaves you at the mercy of a trade war between two global superpowers for lack of any other alternatives.”
On whether Labour believed the network should be built by Huawei, Ms Nandy said there were two considerations for the party. “One is what is the alternative? And the second is what safeguards can be put in place? Can a firewall be adequately built to make sure our national security isn’t compromised? And at the moment those questions just remain unanswered.
“Labour will take a view on how we vote on that when the House returns, but we will be pushing the government for answers to those questions,” the senior frontbencher said.
On security concerns, the National Security Council (NSC) designated Huawei a “high risk vendor” in February, but it was agreed the Chinese owned company could bid for “non-core elements” of the project — where security agencies believe risks can be mitigated.
But Ms Nandy also said the row developing within the Conservative Party over relations with Beijing in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis was “quite damaging”. Criticism of China has vastly increased since the outbreak of the virus, with the senior Tory MP Damian Green suggesting in March the UK’s stance towards the country “may have to become similar to our attitude to Russia in the more peaceful stages of the Cold War”.
Of the row, she said: “It presents you with a binary choice about whether we throw all in with China in order to progress our economic interests, or whether we bring up barriers to China in order to protect our national security and our domestic interests.”
“At the moment, it looks like the government is moving in a direction that sort of puts up barriers to the Chinese government,” she added. “I have to say, some of that is very long overdue. I think our approach to China has been fairly naive over the last 10 years, but there will come a moment in a few weeks’ time when the world’s attention turns to rebuilding our economies after the public health crisis recedes.
“Already you can see in government that there is going to be a reliance on Chinese investment in order to rebuild the British economy, so those tensions are just not resolved and there is no real strategic approach to how we deal with that.”
Expanding on what she described as a “naive” approach, Ms Nandy claimed that for the last 10 years there hadn’t been a “coherent foreign policy” in Britain. “We’ve had an approach to the rest of the world that is seen almost exclusively through the lens of trade and economic growth and that’s meant we’ve been pursuing trade deals with countries like Russia, like China, without thinking about the wider implications,” she said.
As shadow energy secretary under Ed Miliband‘s leadership, the Labour MP had also raised concerns in 2015 when the government was pursuing Chinese investment to help fund the cost of the nuclear power station at Hinckley Point, in Somerset, “without fully thinking through the implications of handing over energy security to the Chinese government”.
“We’ve got to have a much more strategic approach to this, not least because there is no global problem that can be solved without the involvement of China,” she added. “So as well as having much more strategic independence, we’ve got to have a constructive relationship.”
In recent weeks, Ms Nandy has held a series of conversations with world leaders, including from New Zealand and Australia, alongside the new Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, where a “huge amount of goodwill” towards Britain was on display. But as countries across the world begin to emerge from lockdowns and governments prepare to ease restrictions and rebuild economies, she believes a dangerous moment is on the horizon.
Pressed on whether she believed Britain will have a diminished role in global politics, she said: “I think actually that the UK has a huge role to play in the world. There are enormous challenges at the moment around tensions between the USA and China and the way in which the world is being squeezed between those two things. You only have to look at what happened with the UK with Huawei to see how that can play out on a domestic level.”
In response to the global pandemic she claimed the world will soon face a moment where it “will choose to pull together or pull apart”, later adding: “Already you can see in Hungary, the USA, in Italy, whether it’s coming from government, government advisers or opposition parties, you can see these nationalist, populist voices making the case for attacking multilateral institutions and closing borders, seeing huge amount of scapegoating of migrants when the Covid pandemic first hit and protectionism is not caused by Covid but could be accelerated by it. I’m very determined in Labour we’re going to play our part in making sure we can get that right.”
The unprecedented impact of coronavirus has also had personal implications for the Wigan MP, which she highlights in response to the reports of the prime minister’s most senior aide, Dominic Cummings, breaking lockdown instructions. While she said many of her constituents recognised the “stresses” he was under, Ms Nandy added: “But that’s exactly the stress and dilemmas that have been afflicting families up and down the country — often in much more acute circumstances.
“We’ve got constituents who haven’t been able to say goodbye to loved ones. I went to a funeral a few weeks ago and said goodbye to a very close friend from the car park while the family sat inside by themselves,” she said. “The close family came to the funeral parlour with the hearse and the funeral service was conducted from inside the crematorium. Very close friends and family had been invited to attend but to attend outside, socially distanced, and the crematorium put a loud speaker on so that we could hear the ceremony. It was of some comfort to the family that they could see that people who were there, but it was a very difficult experience.”
Ahead of Durham police releasing a statement suggesting Mr Cummings may have broken lockdown restrictions by driving to Barnard Castle, Ms Nandy added he “should have been sacked” by the prime minister, adding: “Keir said recently if he were prime minister Dominic Cummings would have been sacked and I think that is the only course of action that will begin to restore public confidence. I’ve never been in favour of witch hunts in politics but I think people do have to take responsibility for their own actions.”
The day after losing the contest to succeed Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader on 4 April, Ms Nandy was invited by Sir Keir to take up the position of shadow foreign secretary — a core role on the shadow frontbench. She emerged with 16 per cent of the first preference votes of the party ballot of members, but admits now it wasn’t an “enormous shock to anyone in the political world” when the former Brexit secretary won decisively.
Due to the coronavirus outbreak, a planned special conference of party members was cancelled and candidates in the contest were asked to pre-record a victory video that could be shared with the press and supporters when the results were announced.
“Yeah, I didn’t do that,” Ms Nandy said. “First of all we didn’t have a budget left to make a video. There was a moment during the campaign when when we were all put under a lot of scrutiny about the amount of money we had coming in and I remember saying at one of the hustings, don’t worry I’ve declared all of mine and don’t worry, it didn’t take very long.
“We didn’t record any kind of victory message for a couple of reasons. It would have been a real waste of time — in terms of what was going to happen next with the Labour Party you could have recorded that the day of the announcement. It just seemed like a really strange way to sort of approach the start of a new leadership.”
During the Labour leadership contest, Ms Nandy outlined her approach to foreign policy at a major speech at the Royal Society of Arts, defending the free movement of people and delivering a scathing assessment of Mr Corbyn’s “totally wrong” approach to Russia and the 2018 Salisbury poisoning. She said the party must not shy away from the mistakes it had made, including the “disastrous decision” to invade Iraq and urged the party to stand up to its values “even when they have economic consequences”.
But for her vision for Britain’s foreign policy ever to be implemented, Labour faces both a four-year wait and a considerable challenge in the wake of the disastrous December election result. Even for the party to emerge with a small majority government after the next scheduled vote in May 2024, Sir Keir must win in excess of 124 parliamentary seats across the UK — a scale of victory not experienced by Labour since the 1997 election, in which Tony Blair secured a net gain of 146 seats. But Nandy believes this is “possible” due to the increasingly volatile nature of politics.
“I think traditional voter loyalties have started to really break down,” she said. “We’ve seen that to Labour’s cost in recent years. But things move with speech at the moment and if they can flip once, they can flip again. But that’s not to underestimate the scale of the challenge.
“Those voters who started to turn away from Labour in seats like mine in 2015, by 2017 they were saying we’ll just sit this one out, we won’t vote for anyone else because the break with labour was emotional and deep and they weren’t prepared to leap to another political party. But by 2019 we were seeing them on that journey making that leap. The lesson from Scotland is once people leave it’s very, very hard to get them back.”