Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, on Wednesday urged Boris Johnson to rethink his decision to let Huawei help develop Britain’s 5G mobile phone networks, as he arrived in the UK amid growing tensions between London and Washington.
Mr Pompeo, who will meet the prime minister on Thursday, said Britain had a chance to “relook” at the decision to let the Chinese telecoms equipment maker to develop peripheral elements of the UK’s 5G network.
His comments came as some senior Tories, concerned by an increasingly combative tone from the Trump administration, notably over Huawei, questioned whether it was still in Britain’s interest to push for an early post-Brexit trade deal with the US.
Washington believes Huawei poses a spying risk as an arm of the Chinese state, although the company has repeatedly denied this, saying it is a private group owned by its employees.
“Our view of Huawei has been that putting it in your system creates real risk,” said Mr Pompeo. “This is an extension — an extension of the Chinese Communist party.”
Mr Pompeo added there were “lots of topics” on his agenda in London, including “trade issues”.
As part of any trade deal, Britain is braced for demands by Washington for US farmers to have greater access to the British market, including by selling hormone-treated beef and chlorine washed chicken.
Donald Trump said last year that the National Health Service would be “on the table” in trade talks — raising the prospect of US pharmaceutical companies selling more drugs to the NHS — although he subsequently rowed back.
These sensitive issues around food and the NHS highlight how any UK-US trade negotiation is likely to be more complicated than British ministers are prepared to publicly concede.
And the tough language from Washington is prompting an emerging mood of defiance among Conservative MPs, some of whom were among the biggest champions of securing an early trade deal with the US.
“What’s the worst that can happen?” said one minister, when asked if the UK might not be able to clinch a deal with the US. “It wouldn’t be catastrophic.”
One Brexit-supporting Conservative MP said that while “a few hardline Eurosceptics would feel let down and make their voices heard, that’s it. Boris’ position is rock solid”. Another Eurosceptic Tory MP, who favours the UK securing a trade deal with the US, said: “I don’t think we should offer up stuff we don’t want to give in order to get one.”
Downing Street reiterated on Wednesday that Mr Johnson was committed to agreeing a trade deal with the US.
While Mr Trump has said he wants to quadruple trade between the two countries, a cross-Whitehall study of the costs and benefits of Brexit estimated in 2018 that a US free trade agreement would increase UK gross domestic product by just 0.2 per cent after 15 years.
Experts have repeatedly highlighted how it is more important for the UK to secure a post-Brexit trade agreement with the EU.
“Even on an optimistic view the benefits of a US trade deal would be about one 20th of the costs of failing to do a deal with the EU,” said Nick Macpherson, a former Treasury permanent secretary.
One cabinet minister said “Europe is the big deal” ministers should be focused on, not the US.
Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, said the UK relationship with the US was “incredibly important”, and added that there were big opportunities, including on “free trade”.
“I think the relationship has a maturity — the UK-US relationship — that we can be confident enough to have candid conversations on the odd element on which we disagree,” he said.