Europe Politics

Britain in a 'dead-end street' without political change, former spy chief says

Key Points
  • A snap election is going to take place in the U.K. in December.
  • It comes amid continuing parliamentary paralysis over Brexit.
  • The former head of MI6 told CNBC that the election was needed, and that Huawei should not have a role in the U.K.'s 5G network.
Pro-EU demonstrators protest outside the Houses of Parliament on 30 October, 2019 in London, England.
Barcroft Media | Barcroft Media | Getty Images

A snap election in the U.K. in December is what's needed to break parliamentary paralysis over Brexit but details on defense and security in the EU withdrawal agreement are not good enough, Richard Dearlove, the former chief of the U.K.'s Secret Intelligence Service, told CNBC Thursday.

"We're stuck politically with a Parliament that is composed in such a way that it's not keen to implement Brexit in the way originally envisaged by the referendum," Dearlove, who ran the U.K.'s secret intelligence agency known as MI6 from 1999 to 2004, told CNBC's Nancy Hungerford in Singapore.

"So, unless we have a parliamentary change, we're almost in a dead end street with nowhere to go, so I'm very pleased indeed that that decision has been taken (to hold a vote)," he said.

Very pleased there'll be a UK general election: Former head of MI6
Very pleased there'll be a UK general election: Former head of MI6

The snap election that is taking place on December 12 is seen as a way to break an parliamentary impasse over Brexit. The U.K. has been given a further extension to sort out its departure from the EU, and to ratify a Brexit deal, until January 31, 2020.

If the U.K. Parliament approves the Brexit divorce deal, or "Withdrawal Agreement," before then it can leave the bloc ahead of the deadline. Voter polls show that Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative Party could win a majority in the election.

Dearlove on Brexit

Richard Dearlove has made several notable political statements since leaving MI6 and most recently on Brexit. Ahead of the 2017 general election, he said it would be "profoundly dangerous" for the U.K. if Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the main opposition left-wing Labour party, became leader.

Then in November 2018, Dearlove co-signed an open later published in a British newspaper that heavily criticized the Brexit deal negotiated by the then-Prime Minister Theresa May. In the letter, Dearlove said the deal, as it was then, "surrenders British national security by subordinating U.K. defence forces to Military EU control and compromising U.K. Intelligence capabilities."

Dearlove and his co-signatories stated that the deal jeopardized the U.K.'s "Five Eyes" alliance (an anglophone intelligence pact between the U.K., U.S., Australia, Canada and New Zealand) and therefore threatened Western security; "No risks are greater than the Withdrawal Agreement's terms of surrender," the letter concluded.

Since that letter in November 2018, the government has had a change of leadership and the Brexit deal has been amended. Asked on Thursday how he felt about the deal negotiated under Johnson's government, Dearlove said he expected further changes.

"I'm not sure exactly where we stand on that and in a way it's surprising that I'm not. But there's a lot of the detail that was in the Withdrawal Agreement, particularly on defense and security issues, with which I disagree. And that was one of reasons why I was very unhappy with the negotiation that the previous prime minister had completed," he said.

"The specific difficulty was that we were agreeing to areas of cooperation with the European Union, on issues of defense in particular, which we had not been enthusiastic about joining whilst we were a member. So it seems to me rather anomalous that we were making those conditions," he said.

"I'm pretty sure that some of those elements will be coming out now, or won't live beyond future negotiations with the EU," he said.

'Draw a line' under Huawei

Dearlove has also been vocal about another divisive security issue in the U.K. — whether to allow Chinese tech giant Huawei to build 5G infrastructure. Dearlove has repeatedly warned of security risks to the U.K. from allowing the telecoms firm to have a role, saying in May that it would give the Chinese government a "potentially advantageous exploitative position in the U.K.'s future telecommunications systems."

A decision on whether to exclude Huawei from having a role in proving 5G infrastructure is now not expected until after the election, Bloomberg reported Wednesday, citing two unnamed sources familiar with the plans. 

Huawei and the Chinese government have repeatedly rebuffed security concerns and the company has denied that its equipment could be used by the Chinese government for surveillance. Huawei has also offered to sign "no-spy" agreements with governments to reassure countries like the U.K. But security experts like Dearlove remain unconvinced.

"I think now with 5G we have a real problem and it's not too late to draw a line and say as we build out 5G we don't want to do it with Huawei … but I think that decision now is suspended for now and not likely to be reviewed by a new government," Dearlove said.