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15 April 2020

How the coronavirus pandemic is widening Tory divisions over China

The Huawei rebellion is becoming an increasing problem for the government, as anti-China sentiment builds on the Tory back benches.

By George Grylls

The last vote to take place in the House of Commons was a rebellion. Before the dissolution of parliament and the announcement of a lockdown, 38 Conservative MPs defied the party whip to take a stand over Huawei.

On the surface, the rebellion failed. The amendment – which sought to time-limit Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G network  –  did not pass. But the act’s symbolism set down a marker to the government. MPs from all corners of the Conservative Party came together to protest British foreign policy towards China. They included leading lights from both the One Nation caucus and the European Research Group, former cabinet ministers and select committee chairs, members of the 1987 intake and members of the 2019 intake.

Now, the coronavirus pandemic has hardened the rebels’ resolve. Tom Tugendhat, chair of the foreign affairs select committee, wrote in the Mail on Sunday a couple of weeks ago that “our economic dependence on China and kowtowing to its government comes at a very high price”. And recent events by Conservative think tanks have discussed a more hawkish approach to China.

“If you look at the wider Conservative establishment, I was struck by the webinar that Policy Exchange hosted on this subject which featured William Hague,” says one senior rebel. “A lot of people in Conservative circles are coming round.”

Sino-scepticism is currently manifesting itself in the row over Imagination Tech – a British technology firm purchased by a Chinese state-owned investment fund. More generally, there is concern that the current weakness of the pound will result in Chinese companies buying up sensitive British firms. 

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It should be remembered that since the David Cameron era an uneasy consensus has held that Chinese investment is a good thing, and that many in Tory circles think the current tough-talking is overblown. “It’s a mistake to conflate several different things into a general ‘let’s bash China’ thing,” counters one Conservative MP. “There’s a danger that leading a campaign through the Daily Mail to whip up popular anger could look like a crude, xenophobic response. We don’t want Trump-esque finger-pointing.”

There are plenty of potential rebels – some from uncomfortably close quarters for the government. Before lockdown, the personal private secretary to one cabinet minister expressed his remorse to me that he could not vote for the Huawei amendment first time round. And it has been noticeable in recent days that previously loyal Conservative MPs have begun tweeting coded rebukes in the form of, for example, pro-Taiwan messages. Will they feel sufficiently emboldened to step out of line?

The person to watch out for is Sajid Javid. The former chancellor summed up the Conservative dilemma in an article for the Times this week, where he said that “we must resist the call to abandon our free-enterprise, free-trade economic model”, but in the same piece also said that the UK’s relationship with China “will need to be overhauled”. In essence, he was sticking to the George Osborne and Cameron-era policy of having his cake and eating it: that is to say, attracting Chinese investment and hoping that there would be no implications for national security attached.

But matters are coming to a head. If Javid continues on his path to Sino-scepticism, then that is a fairly good sign that more will join the rebellion.

“Many more people than the original Huawei group have observed the way the Chinese have behaved in this crisis,” says one rebel ominously.