After the thrill of giving my last ever speech in the European Parliament, and the joyous the scenes in Parliament Square on Friday night, I found myself out of a job. After 20 years as an MEP, I had finally managed to make myself redundant. So I took the opportunity to head off to Washington DC for Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, being made at this dramatic time in US politics.
I knew there were many friends in the Republican Party and many commentators in the wider political sphere who would be delighted that Brexit had finally been achieved. During the week, the bar of the Trump hotel was full of these like-minded individuals. The chief reason for their optimistic mood, of course, was the barnstorming performance which the president put in on Tuesday night and, the following day, the Senate acquitting him of charges that he abused his power and obstructed Congress. But many told me they saw Brexit as a hammer-blow to globalism and were looking forward to a US/UK trade deal.
Despite it being such a busy week for the President, I was amazed that he found the time to meet me in The Oval Office. First, accompanied by Texan Congressman Louie Gohmert, I talked to Vice President Mike Pence outside. Then, I went into the most famous office in the world for a one-to-one meeting with Mr Trump. The office was smaller than I had expected but was, nonetheless, a beautiful room. It was particularly good to see a bust of Winston Churchill there, which President Obama had removed. I remember discussing its reinstatement with the President a few days after his election back in 2016.
As with all of my meetings with the President, I am careful never to reveal exactly what was said. What I can confirm, though, is that he genuinely likes Boris Johnson and is the most pro-British President for years. He believes that the removal of barriers could leave us with a trade deal that would be good for both sides. He has been through a torrid time throughout the impeachment process and was relieved it was all over. My strong sense is that the Democrats have only succeeded in making him and his core supporters even more determined to win the election later this year.
On the vexed issue of Huawei, I told him that I would be asked for his response. His official word on the issue was: “The United Kingdom must do whatever is best for United Kingdom.” All over Washington, however, there are darker words being spoken. Because at the very moment when the special relationship should be going into overdrive, I fear that we could soon see it going into reverse.
Much has been reported over the last few days about the Trump/Johnson phone call in relation Huawei. Most of it is speculation. What I can say with certainty is that I was shocked at the strength of feeling I encountered from the many Congressmen and Senators that I met. Take Jim Banks, a pro-Brexit member of Congress in Indiana. He is so concerned by the UK decision to involve Huawei in 5G that he told me with bewilderment: “The British reclaim their sovereignty from Brussels and now they’ve abdicated it to Beijing.” He has now introduced a bill that would prohibit the US sharing intelligence from countries that allow Huawei to operate their 5G networks. Many others US politicians I met agree with Jim Banks.
Now consider Australia. Despite its strong economic ties with China, the government has banned Huawei from operating in its telecoms sector. It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of the Five Eyes intelligence partnership is under threat. Nobody in Britain should underestimate this.
Worse still is the potential impact on a UK/US trade dal as a result of this inexplicable tie-up with Huawei. A quick negotiation with America would significantly help our ability to talk terms with Brussels. Has this trick been missed?
During my time in Washington this week I was left in doubt that all technology-based projects and services will now be removed from any UK/US deal. Senior Republican senators have told me they see it as extremely unlikely that such deals would pass Congress given the deep distrust of Huawei. At the very moment when we should be making great progress, it seems we have shot ourselves in the foot.
There is one way that a compromise could be reached, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hinted a little of this is his recent visit to London. The UK government’s defence of its decision rests on the assertion that Huawei will not be involved in the core of the 5G network, only up to 35 per cent of the periphery. If the US administration can be convinced that this is true then the situation may be saved.
I am sorry to report that those to whom I have spoken, who have considerably better technical understanding of the situation than me, are far from convinced of this. They have suggested that the idea that the core of 5G is protected by encryption codes simply doesn’t hold water. Indeed, the more 5G evolves, they say, the less the difference between the core and the periphery becomes.
Donald Trump is right, of course, that a sovereign United Kingdom must make its own decisions and should not be dictated to by others. It is also true that doing business with Huawei will be cheaper, and has incentivised the telephone companies to support use of their equipment. But I am told by extremely well informed sources that serious alternatives to Huawei are very close at hand, if only Boris Johnson will reconsider them.
Given what is at stake, Johnson must suspend the Huawei decision straight away. Otherwise, irreparable damage may be done to the special relationship at this crucial moment in our nation’s history.