They spoke out ahead of a key meeting tomorrow of the National Security Council where ministers will discuss giving a restricted role to the tech giant that Washington claims poses a danger of espionage.
However, ex-foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt came out as “hawkish” on the decision, warning against “dependency” on the Chinese telecoms company.
Ministers and the heads of intelligence and security agencies will attempt to make a final decision tomorrow when they meet at a secure conference room in Whitehall. The Prime Minister recently indicated he has asked the United States for alternatives but received no suggestions.
Sir Mark Lyall Grant, who was national security adviser when Theresa May’s senior ministers came close to backing Huawei a year ago, said he would be “surprised” if President Trump got his way and the company was barred.
“I think we have to take the advice of the experts,” he told the BBC’s Today, implying the heads of listening centre GCHQ and the National Cyber Security Centre would support a role.
“If they believe the risk is minimal or can be mitigated, I don’t see any reason why the decision last year should not be validated,” he said.
Sir Mark said the Chinese firm was at the “cutting edge” of 5G technology and European rivals like Nokia and Ericsson “aren’t as good or as cheap as Huawei”.
Another former national security adviser Peter Ricketts said the risk was “being blown out of proportion”.
“We already have lots of Huawei equipment on our 4G network which will stay, there is no US or UK 5G technology, so the only others are Ericsson and Nokia, both of whom are also made of Chinese components.”
He added: “I personally think we can find a solution which does allow them [Huawei] to have some role and which doesn’t send the Americans off the other side of the diving board.” Mr Hunt, who is campaigning to become a Commons committee chair, revealed on Today he has always had reservations: “I always wondered whether it was wise to allow ourselves to become technologically dependent on another country … for something as critical as 5G technology.”
He said the UK “too often” gets an “America first message” when looking to the States for leadership.
“I think the issue is what happens if we get to the situation where no Western companies that are really able to compete with Huawei going forward and, like it or not, in a decade’s time people will look back and say ‘Was this really wise to take this decision in 2020 that has led to this dependency?”’
America has piled pressure on Britain to bar Huawei, even claiming that intelligence sharing is in danger. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted last night: “The UK has a momentous decision ahead on 5G.” He backed Tory MP Tom Tugendhat, a Huawei critic, saying: “The truth is that only nations able to protect their data will be sovereign.”
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said the calculation would be taken in terms of the UK’s national interest.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour: “The decision we make will be based upon our own sovereign right to choose. It’s Britain that will have to live with the consequences of that.”