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Dean Godson is the Director of Policy Exchange.

On occasion, there really is something new under the political sun: so who would ever have predicted that China policy would become a key Conservative fault line post Brexit?

Historically, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) never occupied a prominent place in the British Conservative cosmos, after the fashion of the American Right. There was no “who lost China?” debate in Westminster – such as convulsed Washington following the Maoist takeover in 1949.

All that is changing: nearly everyone now has an opinion on China because of Covid19. One measurement of the salience of an issue is the proliferation of party caucuses – such as the Huawei WhatsApp Group and the China Research Group. There is also talk of an alternative to the China APPG, seen by some as insufficiently challenging to the PRC.

Critics claim there is a flavour here of the People’s Liberation Front of Judea versus the Judean People’s Liberation Front. But as with Brexiteer factionalism, emerging fractions also reflect a certain dynamism. As Mao said: “let a hundred flowers bloom”.

Those Europe rebellions differed from the Huawei mutiny of 2020 in one key respect: they occurred when the Conservatives’ margins were slender. By contrast, this rebellion took place under the biggest Conservative majority since 1987. But for the prestige of Boris Johnson with the 2019 intake, it would have been much bigger; Anthony Mangnall (Totnes), was the sole dissenter amongst the newcomers. Soundings suggest he will not be alone next time.

The Conservative PRC-sceptic coalition is disparate, but broad. Not all of them were Huawei rebels, or are even MPs. The emerging balance of forces is, however, clear: out and proud PRC sceptics tend to be appreciably more vocal than advocates of the Government line. The sceptics can roughly be divided into eight strands of thought, some of which overlap:

  • Pro-Brexit Atlanticists such as Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson — who don’t want Huawei to jeopardise an FTA with America and who identify with the current bipartisan Washingtonian view of the PRC.
  • Senior former Ministers who are also Atlanticists – but who are not purists on PRC policy. They feel that if the PRC is admitted into international institutions, it must then abide by their rules. This viewpoint was most prominently articulated by William Hague at the recent Policy Exchange webinar on China; it is shared by Liam Fox and Damian Green. Hague and Green were Remainers, whilst Fox was a Leaver.
  • Younger liberal internationalists who voted Remain – most prominently, Tom Tugendhat, Chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee (this panel has proven notably cohesive across the party divides).
  • Civil libertarians worried by the Chinese surveillance practice, most obviously David Davis (who overlaps with the first camp).
  • Religious freedom and human rights advocates – such as Fiona Bruce (Congleton) and Benedict Rogers (co-founder of Hong Kong Watch).
  • Opponents of the dumping practices of the PRC – many of whom come from “Red Wall” seats with steel and ceramics industries.
  • Tory critics of globalisation – such as Nick Timothy.
  • Those who claim to be sympathetic to most or all of those strands – such as Bob Seely (Isle of Wight).

One noteworthy “neutral” is the influential Conservative Environment Network. Its members worry about animal welfare and a Chinese reversion to coal; but they also note the PRC’s part in reducing carbon emissions and in the manufacture of electric vehicles. Zac Goldsmith, the International Environment Minister is also seeking a global new deal on nature – and wants the PRC on board for that.

The Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation likewise holds the PRC to account on such issues as wild life markets; one prominent activist Henry Smith, the MP for Crawlet, was a Huawei rebel. Its website lists Stanley Johnson and Carrie Symonds as leading lights.

Defenders of aspects of the existing policy towards the PRC are less vocal, but they are still there. Again, there is some overlap between the different strands:

The upshot of such frictions is that Westminster is a colder house than it once was for the PRC. Thus, Dominic Raab stated on 16 April that “we can’t have business as usual” — and that a “deep dive” review is coming; Priti Patel took a little-advertised decision to ban Hikvision from a security conference because of its role in surveillance of the Uighurs; and there was controversy over the PRC role in an attempted boardroom coup at Imagination Technologies. It won’t be the last.

But is the Government’s apparent change of approach one of substance or style – or, in the jargon of the Huawei decision, is it about the policy “core” or the tonal “periphery”? For example, it remains to be decided what the “deep dive” review will consist of; who will undertake it; and when it will emerge.

A new policy has not yet come into being because senior Ministers are often reminded by permanent servants of the State that the UK is heavily invested in the current broad terms of trade with the PRC – from which it cannot easily be extricated. Indeed, one senior former Minister notes with grudging respect Mark Sedwill’s part in persuading two very different Prime Ministers, May and Johnson, to stick with Huawei.

This approach is reinforced by the Treasury — which sees itself as the guarantor of economic growth and, increasingly, of big infrastructure projects to help the country out of recession. The PRC potentially has an important part to play there; Philip Hammond’s appreciation for Belt and Road is one legacy of his Chancellorship. And then there is the Government’s immediate dependency on the PRC for PPE.

So as with Brexit, much of the Conservative family finds itself pitted against the permanent State on how Britain aligns itself in the world; as with Brexit, the China rebels face a long (reverse) march through the institutions; and as with Brexit, Conservative Ministers find themselves caught between those contending forces.

One PRC-sceptic senior Minister has given colleagues copies of The Hundred-Year Marathon by Michael Pillsbury – a prominent US Sinologist admired by Donald Trump. The Minister’s point is that Conservatives need the same patience and craft as the PRC. The Parliamentary politics of China will be determined by whether Ministers have the credibility to persuade backbenchers that they are genuinely playing that kind of long game.

The new Labour Opposition will be worth watching. Labour sources state that precisely because Keir Starmer was author of Labour’s disastrous pledge for a second referendum, he now needs to show to the lost Red Wall heartlands that he is no Blairite globaliser – and will turn to the institutions of the nation state to defend distressed British companies going for a song to Chinese investors.

Both front benches share a common vocabulary – describing the absence of alternatives to Huawei as “market failure”. So how open will Labour be to cooperation with the Conservatives – either with the rebels, or even the Government? Or will the Conservatives succeed in determining policy on their own terms?

131 comments for: Dean Godson: How the Conservatives divide on policy towards China

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